September 11 last year freedom and security have been headline news
and topics of heated debate in many countries.
has also been in the news these last 12 months with its well-documented
social, economic and political problems. Argentines are being battered
by currency devaluation, rising inflation, high unemployment, social
unrest, and political chaos.
a brilliant winters day I journey from the Capital Federal district
into the hard hit Buenos Aires province area looking for a different
perspective on freedom and security.
The winter sky is a stunning azure blue and the sun's warm rays
filter through the gaps between the apartment buildings and provide
heat to the city floor. The warmth and brightness are a stark contrast
to the blackness of the economic and social misery that is smothering
Argentina right now. Argentina, the world's eighth largest country
and home to some 36 million people is struggling to lift itself
out of its deep recession.
international investors Argentina is the most insecure country on
earth, its government bonds are trading with a risk premium of over
70% pa above the equivalent US bond. The next worst are currently
troubled neighbours Brazil and Uruguay who pay a premium of around
decide to take a train trip from the downtown area out into the
Buenos Aires province; the provinces are suffering severely the
effects of the recession and I want to observe its impact on living
conditions, freedom, and security.
mid morning when I board the train heading for provincial centre
Pilar with hundreds of others at the Palermo station in central
Buenos Aires. I want to see the real impact the recession is having
but I'm having trouble seeing through the scratched perspex window.
The original glass windows have long been replaced by perspex both
for passenger security and to stop the windows being stolen.
view is not great, for the first half hour or so as we head out
of the Federal Capital district rubbish is everywhere, and there
are many makeshift homes by the side of the tracks with people sitting
outside, trying to keep warm or going about their daily business.
Many of the stations that we stop at are rundown and many shops
have their windows boarded up. Cafes that once bubbled with noise
and cooking are either deserted or closed. There is little money
left over from those lucky enough to have a job to pay for a hot
lunch or a relaxing coffee on the way to or from work.
out in the province the paved roads disappear and weeds and long
grass are ever present at the side of the tracks. Abandoned cars
and half finished houses cover the landscape. Every now and then
there is a neat house with manicured garden but the majority are
self-constructed dwellings surrounded by grassless dirt and wire
fences. Plastic bags, papers, and other rubbish blown by the wind
decorate tangled plants and battered trees. Graffiti painted on
a wall vainly exhorts the locals to help "keep San Miguel clean"
the warm and bright conditions have tricked me into forgetting that
this is a very dangerous area, an area where bandits take refuge
in the impoverished shantytowns and police fear to follow them.
This cold reality of the situation wakes me as I see soldiers with
automatic weapons standing guard at the seemingly sleepy Muniz station.
a change of trains and more armed police my journey continues past
more fields of plastic bags and piled rubbish. Kids play and ride
bikes on the dirt roads. The only relief from the brown dirt, faded
green vegetation, and white plastic bags are the occasional car
or clothes hung out to dry on improvised washing lines.
there is a change, on one side of the tracks appear large houses,
perfect fields, sealed roads and tree lined avenues as well as swimming
pools and tennis courts. I'm surprised to see such care and prosperity
after so much desperation and abandon. Then I notice the high fences
that seal off these country clubs and private suburbs from the shantytowns
on the other side of the tracks.
this division seems to symbolize the dilemma of freedom and security,
on one side of the tracks the wealthy have chosen to enclose themselves
within high fences for protection. They live in peaceful and secure
surroundings but freedom stops at the perimeter fences. Across the
tracks shantytown residents have constructed their houses as best
they can, there is little to stop unwanted guests or even heavy
rain, there is no security but freedom of movement is somehow preserved.
hours after leaving downtown Buenos Aires I reach Pilar, a growing
rural centre popular with companies and families looking for more
relaxed surroundings for work and play. From the small railway station
I walk to the commercial centre. The houses are tidy and nicely
painted, but protected by high fences and barred windows. Again
the warm sun and pleasant surroundings have made me forget the insecure
central Plaza in Pilar is beautifully maintained by an army of municipal
workers who pick up rubbish, relax on park benches and chat to passers
by. Security guards patrol the area, new cars are parked all around,
and smart cafes offer businessmen's lunches. Here at last one feels
free to relax, to let down your guard. Sadly it's only because of
the controlling presence of private security guards and provincial
police that allows this freedom to be felt. So much security for
such a fragment of freedom.
to Pilar's railway station I wait for the train to take me back
to Buenos Aires, I buy a drink and one of Argentina's famous Milanesa
sandwiches. After eating I walk to the end of the platform to throw
my litter in one of the few bins, it falls straight to the ground
through the hole in the bottom and waits for the wind to pick it
up and carry it to some unknown destination. I wonder if this is
what many Argentines must be feeling as they have been stripped
of the control of their lives by poverty and unemployment, they
wait as best they can hoping for a good wind to blow their way.
the newspaper stand the front-page story is about a kidnapped boy
whose body was found floating in a pond. His desperate parents paid
the ransom but to no avail. Family and "barrio" residents
then marched on the local Police station demanding justice and accusing
the police of killing the boy. In their anger they smash the windows
of the Police station and set fire to the building. Looters take
advantage of the Police distraction to smash shop windows and steal
what they can. No freedom and no security.
the return trip the train is full with people heading into the city
to work the "nightshift". In the city they will open rubbish
bags looking for food, cans, newspapers and anything else they can
use. They board the train with their supermarket trolleys and carts,
young and old, parents with children, couples, and groups of friends.
A beautiful girl with jet black hair and deep brown eyes sits opposite
me, I try to convince myself that she is not one of them and that
she is heading somewhere better. Its hopeless though, the overwhelming
poverty is indiscriminate, it strikes the beautiful, the talented,
the honest, and the hardworking, 95% of those born into poverty
here will remain in it all their lives.
train stops suddenly and I hear shouting outside, armed Police with
bullet proof vests move forward to see what is happening. We are
stopped outside a shantytown or emergency village as they are called
here. Thankfully it's nothing to worry about, its more "nightshift"
workers wanting to board the train, they waved down the train rather
than walk to the nearest station several kilometres away.
the half open window I feel the cold wind of poverty blow over me
and I see more images of desolation and desperation. An old man
on crutches picks his way through rubbish at the side of a road
hoping to strike "gold", a family sits by a polluted pond,
homes made from containers, and children playing in the dust.
downtown the train is nearly empty, the night workers have all got
off to start their tragic labour, they don't have to clock in but
they are working around the clock just to survive.
alone now and its getting cold, the sun won't go down for a couple
of hours but the warmth is nearly gone. I get off the train and
walk back to my apartment. I used to feel trapped here in the city
but now I feel a strange freedom amongst the tall buildings and
endless cement. Its like you have to experience desperation and
hopelessness to know what freedom really feels like.
through the night the pretty girl and thousands like her will be
working in the cold darkness trying to scratch out a living. It
hurts to see people suffering and struggling and it hurts that a
country of enormous potential and beauty like Argentina is not yet
images of poverty and despair flicker on the back of my eyelids
I think about those people with no freedom and no security. If we
want our future to be greater than our past we all need to think
about what we can do to help them.