Fragments of Freedom

Freedom and Security in Argentina




Since September 11 last year freedom and security have been headline news and topics of heated debate in many countries.

Argentina 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.

On 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.

Fragments of Freedom

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.

For 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 20%.

I 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.

Its 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 The original glass windows have long been replaced by perspex both for passenger security and to stop the windows being stolen.

The 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.

Once 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"

Somehow 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.

After 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.

Suddenly 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.

Somehow 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.

Two 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 reality.

The 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.

Returning 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.

At 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.

On 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.

The 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.

From 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.

Approaching 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.

I'm 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.

All 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 free.

As 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.