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Last Updated: Friday, 26 October 2007, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Argentina's divisions clear to see
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Cristina Kirchner posters in Rio Gallegos
Rio Gallegos, the Kirchners' stronghold, has seen protests
Something like 40% of Argentina's 39 million population live in or near the capital, Buenos Aires. And many of them talk of life beyond the General Paz, the ring-road that circles the city, as distant and exotic.

Buenos Aires has a strong European influence, while the rest of Argentina is more, well, Latin American.

It has been a struggle to unite the two sides ever since the emergence of Argentina from Spanish colonial rule at the beginning of the 19th Century.

It is still a challenge today, and has especially been so in the run-up to the elections on 28 October with candidates are trying to appeal to all Argentines, from Tierra del Fuego in the south to La Quiaca in the north on the border with Bolivia.

President Nestor Kirchner's entourage are known as The Penguins since, like him, many come from the southern town of Rio Gallegos, closer to the Antarctic than to Buenos Aires.

It is an oil and gas town, not short of money, where a young Nestor Kirchner was first mayor then governor of the surrounding province of Santa Cruz.

Being so far away from the capital, his political ascendancy went largely unnoticed in the rest of Argentina until he emerged in 2003 to take over a country dragging itself out of an economic crisis.

Income gap

Both socially and economically, Argentina is more stable now than it was then.

map

But some of the worst demonstrations have been in his own backyard, in Rio Gallegos, where Mr and Mrs Kirchner have several houses and still visit regularly.

The complaints are that despite the region's prosperity, there is a growing gap between rich and poor, that protests are met with brutal police repression and the local politicians, still controlled by President Kirchner, simply do not listen.

Similar complaints are made in other parts of Argentina.

"Before they take any decision here they have got to consult with the president. That's the general feeling here, that all decisions continue to be made from the presidential palace. All we've got here is a delegate," Rio Gallegos union leader, Pablo Munoz.

Not surprisingly, that is an accusation rejected by current Santa Cruz governor, Daniel Peralta:

"What's wrong with picking up the telephone and talking directly to the president? We'd be daft not to. The political decisions are taken here, the structural decisions taken here in Santa Cruz are taken by me. If a mistake is made, it's my mistake," he said.

Toba leader Eliseo Lopez
What is important for us is that the government respects us or helps us
Eliseo Lopez

There are two major tourist attractions in Rio Gallegos. The first is the corner where American outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, held up a bank in 1905.

It marked their return to crime after several years spent tending their ranch in southern Argentina while they avoided US law-enforcement officers. It is now a shop selling honey and chocolates.

The other site is the large house near the main plaza belonging to Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. It has a heavy police and army guard which sprang into action when I photographed it.

The Kirchner presence is apparent in Rio Gallegos but it is a nervous, suspicious presence which does not much like criticism or opposition.

Indigenous suffering

More than 4,000km (2,483 miles) to the north, in the Impenetrable Forest in the province of Chaco, there is little sign of the state's presence.

Chaco is the poorest province in Argentina and the forest the poorest area of the province.

It is home to the indigenous Toba people who recently made the national headlines - the Buenos Aires headlines - because some of them were dying of malnutrition.

"How could this be?" asked many in a country where the economy is growing 8% a year, unemployment is falling and exports are up.

At the fly-infested, poorly equipped hospital on the edge of the forest, painfully thin Tobas sit on their beds waiting - some hoping to get better, others to die.

They are suffering from tuberculosis and Chagas disease - illnesses with their roots in poverty.

Toba woman in hospital
Toba land is disappearing as loggers clear forests

Swiss nurse Ana Rosa Benedetto, who has been working with the Toba in Chaco for more than 20 years, describes a depressing picture.

"If you speak to the public health authorities they'll say: 'Well, we're working on it, we're doing what we can.' But if you talk to the people - ask them whether they've done the work they're supposed to have done - well, years go by in which nothing is done."

Many Toba live in wood and mud huts in clearings in the forest. They are hunter-gatherers but now find their habitat disappearing.

Loggers are hard at work chopping down valuable hardwoods and farmers are clearing the forests to plant soya - a key export crop in Argentina's current economic boom.

But the Toba, many still speaking their native language, some with poor or no Spanish, are being left behind.

Toba leader, Eliseo Lopez, says they are a long way from Buenos Aires, in more than just the geographical sense.

"Sometimes they listen, sometimes not. It doesn't matter who it is, either the president or whoever," Mr Lopez said.

"What is important for us is that the government respects us or helps us. We've got land. But the government doesn't give jobs to work the land."

They deny treatment, they migrate, they move from one place to the other
Ricardo Mayol
Health Minister
Back in the provincial capital, Resistencia, the health minister, Ricardo Mayol, told me that perhaps the situation is not as clear as it seems:

"They died underfed, but from terminal diseases, other illnesses."

"They're patients we've always found very difficult to cover within the state's health service - because they deny treatment, they migrate, they move from one place to the other," he said.

But it is hard to explain away residents dying from malnutrition in a country that should be able to feed itself many times over. What the deaths have done is put Chaco on the map in the rest of Argentina.

Buenos Aires, with its European architecture, designer shops and fancy restaurants, often has a problem accepting that the rest of Argentina, the Latin American Argentina, lies beyond its city limits.

But it is finding increasingly that its problems are shared problems. And that while there is great geographical and cultural diversity, there really is only one Argentina.



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