Javier Auyero, in researching his book of "Poor People's Politics: Peronist Survival Networks and the Legacy of Evita", found that poverty and inequality are increasing in Latin America. In the last two decades wealth has become more concentrated and the proportion of poor has grown.
While a large middle class had heretofore set Argentina apart from her neighbours, this middle class has experienced "downward mobility". In Greater Buenos Aires, in 1974, the poorest 30% received 13.2% of household income, the middle 60% earned 61.5%, and the richest 10% enjoyed 25.3%. By 1995 these figures were 8.1%, 55.4% and 36.5%. The richest 10% had increased their household income by 44.3% while the poor and middle had suffered declines of 38.6%, and 9.9%. In the shantytown of Parafso, one-half of the 15,000 residents had unmet basic needs, and 75% earned income below the official poverty. In 1993, the poverty line for a family of four was $420 a month.
The growth of poverty is directly related to increasing unemployment and underemployment. Parafso was once a thriving shantytown that attracted migrants and immigrants because of jobs in nearby factories. The residents had hope and many made it into the middle class. In the last two decades, factories closed and jobs disappeared. Though many new jobs were created in services, unemployment now runs as high as 60%. Fully 71% of women are unemployed and those with jobs work mainly as domestics.
This lack of cash hurts reciprocal networks, and growing addiction to drugs and selling of drugs for income by adolescents, has further torn at the social fabric. Violent crime has chased many residents inside and has contributed to a feeling of hopelessness and cynicism. The military brutalized the population twenty years ago (1975-1983) in a hunt for subversives and strong Peronist unionists, and today the police often harass the population. Further exacerbating the perilous economic situation is the retrenchment of the state from welfare activities. Social security and unemployment insurance and health benefits were never heavily subsidized in Argentina, and they are less today as President Carlos Menem (1989-1999), a Peronist, broke with party tradition by pushing privatization and free markets, curbing the power of the unions, and cutting the professional bureaucracy dealing with the poor. This resulted in a decline in resources directed to public health, low-income housing, and public schooling.
It is ironic that as the state withdraws its formal support for the poor and unions, political networks that are informal loom in importance. The worsening social context and the rendering of reciprocal networks based on relatives and friends who are employed cause poor people to turn to informal political networks for resources. Examples are the UBS (Unidades Basicas, or clubs), political brokers, and state-funded programs. These political networks are currently intertwined with the Peronist Party. In December 1995, the wife of the Peronist governor of the province of Buenos Aires introduced the Plan Vida (The Life Plan), whereby manzaneras (female block delegates), chosen by Peronist brokers of the UBS, distribute cereal, milk and eggs to shantytown residents. Interestingly, although the Roman Catholic Church operates soup kitchens and Caritas (charities) outside the political network, more than 80% of its resources come from the city government.
The Peronist Party had access to state resources in the 1990s and was connected to Paraiso through the Peronist brokers of the UBS, trade unions, neighborhood associations, and soccer clubs. A clientelist network of brokers distributed food, medicine and jobs to their inner and outer circles in exchange for votes. However, Auyero found that many of the 300 residents he surveyed did not view this as a dominating power relationship, but as a habitual and legitimate practice. After all, the Peronists had been in and out of power for 50 years and had maintained strong ties to the poor and unions. Neither did the largesse affect many directly: none of the 5 brokers in Parafso had more than 100 followers! Many attended the rallies out of gratitude and perceived the brokers as good and self-sacrificing. The women brokers also symbolically represented Evita Peron-dying their hair blond, using her words of mothering the poor, and serving as a bridge to the Peronist Party. Residents outside these networks are more likely to see these brokers as manipulative and corrupt, yet 60% of the 7,000 voters in Paraaiso vote for the Peronist Party. Since the scope of the clientelist network is limited, the subjective dimension is all the more salient. Clientelism has been legitimized as a way of solving pressing problems independent of any particular broker or patron. Problems are solved through "personalized political mediation", and they are given a Peronist identity in Argentina's shantytowns.
A well-organized ethnography of a shantytown in greater Buenos Aires, Auyero's book fills a gap in the literature of urban clientelism. It introduces to the non-sociologist concepts such as marginality, underclass, clientelism, and the difference between shantytowns and squatter settlements (asentamientos). Basically, shantytowns were founded by rural migrants acting as individuals who had high expectations because there were jobs. Squattowns were founded by downwardly mobile urban migrants who collectively seized the land and expected to remain permanently. This book contains a wealth of material and ideas, and it is pleasing to see that the author has further published articles on gender and poverty, women brokers performing as Evita, violence, political rallies, the changing nature of Peronism, and a comparison of life in the Bronx and Parafso.
Since Auyero's book was written from the perspective of the clients on the bottom, it did not include how the brokers negotiate with their patrons for the delivery of goods and services, and how the brokers did arrive at their solutions for problems. Little attention is paid to patrons and Menem in particular. Did Menem reconstitute the state's ability to govern after inheriting a severe economic crisis? It is hard to believe that the Plan Vida was developed independently of national authorities. Let us hope that a follow-up study will be done in light of the defeat of the Peronist Party in 1999 by La Alianza. Given the extreme poverty, the Radicals and conservatives must continue clientelism, which they historically developed in Argentina. Will they use the UBS or circumvent them? In conclusion, the defeat of the Peronists reinforces Auyero's claim that clientelism is limited in its power to deliver votes.
Adapted from a review of Auyero's book by Virginia W. Leonard.
Inequality in Argentina and the Social Consequences of Peronist Rule
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