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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 March 2006, 15:18 GMT
A tale of two Argentinas

By Daniel Schweimler
BBC, Buenos Aires

The Argentine economy appears to be booming. Unemployment is down, exports are up and the economy grows month after month. But do these statistics tell the full story?

Downtown Buenos Aires
Approximately 12m people live in and around Buenos Aires

There is nothing quite like downtown Buenos Aires at lunchtime as thousands of hungry workers spill onto the streets to fill the many excellent restaurants and cafes.

Well-dressed, confident - some would even say brash - it is hard to believe that just a few years ago Argentina was on its knees.

In December 2001, President Fernando de la Rua fled the presidential palace in a helicopter, the rich moved their cash abroad, the banks put strict limits on what customers could withdraw from their own accounts and the country defaulted on its foreign debt... the largest in history.

There were riots, looting and some deaths.

Many lost everything, while thousands, with no hope for the future, left the country.

No-one is saying that Argentina has fully recovered - not yet, anyway - but almost daily the newspaper headlines proclaim lower unemployment, higher exports, economic growth up month after month and a falling poverty rate.

The economy minister, Felisa Miceli, goes about her business with an almost permanent smile on her face.

Beggars and salesmen

But as I read these stories on the Subte, the Buenos Aires underground system, on my way to and from the BBC office in the centre of the city, I am interrupted by a parade of people not enjoying the benefits of this prosperity.

Men selling pens, screwdrivers, staplers, dancing robots and tape measures.

I do not need plasters but bought some out of pity

Blind men play the harmonica, pensioners from the countryside strum battered guitars and barefoot children lead their crippled grandparents through the carriages with a hand or a hat held out.

Children, no more than five or six years old, leave notes on the passengers' laps imploring them to give a few coins so they can eat.

A young man with a loud, confident voice announces without shame that he has Aids and cannot afford treatment.

Most days I see the old man with the huge tumour on his neck who manages to rasp out a few unintelligible words to try to sell the boxes of plasters he holds in his hands.

I do not need plasters but bought some out of pity.

But perhaps the most shocking is the woman who is reduced to wheeling her crippled son through the carriages, displaying his twisted limbs for all to see while she shakes a metal cup.

Some give, some barely look up over their books and newspapers while others disparagingly wave the beggars and salesmen away.

The other side

People wave as they arrive at the community kitchen
About 500 people turned up to the opening of a Buenos Aires soup kitchen

Just before midnight each night, the rubbish trucks grind their way through the streets of my middle-class neighbourhood with its well-fenced, padlocked houses and security guards on the street corners.

But before they take away our waste I have watched a stream of people who scurry along the gutters, through the shadows, before sifting through the plastic rubbish bags for glass, paper, cardboard, anything edible, anything that can be recycled.

The recovery of Argentina is most obvious in Buenos Aires where there is an increase in construction work and low prices attract large numbers of foreign tourists.

Poverty is at its most acute in the Argentine countryside and the attraction of the cities, where whole communities can live from what the wealthy no longer need, is obvious.

It would be easy to ignore them - these people who live from what we throw away - and many do, amidst the new cars and the fashionable clothes and restaurants.

Community kitchen

Perhaps the most profound symbol of Argentina's recovery is in Puerto Madero, the city's former docks which were derelict and rat-infested.

In recent years they have been taken over by property developers and re-built.

Now they boast plush hotels, swish restaurants and some of the most expensive apartments in Buenos Aires.

But even here, especially here, there is the starkest possible reminder that Argentina still has a problem, with the opening - right in the middle of this much-sought-after neighbourhood - of a community kitchen that will serve only poor children and pensioners.

It will be run by one of the country's most well-known radical protesters, Raul Castells, on land donated by a wealthy businessman.

A huge poster, within sight of the guests at the nearby Hilton Hotel, reads: "We are fighting for an Argentina where the dogs of the rich are no longer fed better than the children of the poor."

Signs of recovery

Poverty is nothing new in Latin America and that suffered in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the shanty towns of Lima is probably far greater and more drastic than anything seen in Argentina.

And there have always been poor people in Argentina, victims of a string of corrupt politicians and misguided economic policies.

Official figures showed that last year the number of children in Argentina classified as poor fell from 62% to 58%.

Few are starving, but in a country which boasts some of the best beef in the world and millions of hectares of rich arable land, many are hungry and tens of thousands of children suffer from a poor diet.

The reduction in poverty and the signs of recovery should of course be welcomed - but it is difficult to applaud too loudly with a barefoot child who should be in school trying to sell me another set of pencils I neither need nor want.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Argentina
02 Mar 06 |  Country profiles
Argentina's poor to dine in style
10 Mar 06 |  Americas
Argentine workers take control
28 Dec 05 |  Americas
The day Argentina hit rock bottom
19 Dec 05 |  Business
Argentina to pay off debt early
16 Dec 05 |  Business
Argentine restructuring 'success'
04 Mar 05 |  Business


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