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Residents are seen in the Villa 31 slum near the heart of Buenos Aires. The Corriente Villera collective brings medical care to poor areas of the city.
With a red star and a the face of Che Guevara emblazoned on its side, the ambulance winds its way through the dingy streets of Villa 1-11-14, a sprawling Buenos Aires shanty town so neglected by the city government that – despite being home to over 25,000 people – it does not even have a name.
But the driver, Alfredo Solano, and the nurse, Valeria Chaparro, are not hospital or city staff. They are members of Corriente Villera, a collective of activists who bring medical care to some of the the poorest districts of the city – areas where state employees rarely venture.
“Not only are they afraid to go into the shanty towns because of the crime there, but they wouldn’t know anyhow how to navigate them like we do,” says Solano.
Because they grew up in the shanty towns themselves, the collective’s members can enter areas where a combination of drug-related crime, rising poverty and government neglect conspire to leave myriad people beyond the reach of regular social services.
Their services are badly needed. An estimated 1.5 million Argentinians fell below the poverty line in 2016, bringing the total to about 13 million people – or 32.9% of the population, according to a report released this month by the Social Debt Observatory of Argentina’s prestigious Catholic University.
The figure made a mockery of election promises by the centre-right president Mauricio Macri, a wealthy businessman who took office in December 2015 with the promise of “zero poverty”.
Addressing the country the day after the figures were released, Macri said: “When we speak of zero poverty, we’re not speaking of one day to the next, we’re speaking of a goal.”
The new poverty figures coincided with mounting social unrest, including a wave of protests by teachers demanding their salaries be brought in line with Argentina’s 40% inflation index.
The government has found some cheer in small signs of growth in the second half of 2016. “We’re growing again and the figures prove it,” tweeted the economy minister, Nicolás Dujovne, on Tuesday, pointing out that GDP was up 0.5% and 0.1% during the third and fourth quarters of last year – despite the average GDP drop of 2.3% for the whole year.
But such talk rings hollow for Marina Joski, the activist who first had the idea of buying secondhand ambulances for the shanty towns of Buenos Aires.
The 42-year-old leader of the Corriente Villera collective grew up near Villa 1-11-14, the largest shanty town in the city of Buenos Aires, which grew out of three original settlements, known as 1 ,11 and 14.
Villera helps organize soup kitchens and other projects such as the cleanup of rubbish-strewn alleys and stagnant ponds that become the breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying dengue and zika viruses.
Among the causes are a brusque devaluation of the peso at the start of Macri’s government, which benefitted agricultural exporters but cut into the purchasing power of workers; the rollback of subsidies on transport and utility rates; and the government’s failure to rein in inflation, which remains stubbornly at around 40%, where it stood at the end of Fernández’s second term.
Back then, Francis put all his weight behind the creation of the Home of Christ, a federation of recovery centres that work with young drug addicts in the shanty towns.
Father Pepe, as he is known, who maintains a close link with Pope Francis, still lives in the often violent La Cárcova slum, and has witnessed the growing poverty first-hand.
“Many people are losing their jobs, others are lucky if they can find even temporary work,” he said.
Back at Villa 1-11-14, Marina Joski laments the lack of official concern for the medical needs of Argentina’s poorest citizens.
“The neglect of the government in the shanty towns has forced us to create a service that should be provided by the state,” she says. “We don’t want to replace the state. What we want is dignity for our neighbours.”