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December 14, 2017
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Government’s social workers fail to blunt scepticism in shantytowns

Children stand inside their home in the Matadero shantytown in Quilmes.
Children stand inside their home in the Matadero shantytown in Quilmes.
Children stand inside their home in the Matadero shantytown in Quilmes.
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By Nicolás Misculin
Reuters

Poor demand more commitment and long-term assistance as Macri’s deploys Acá estamos scheme in low-income parts of BA province


SAN MIGUEL — Mauricio Macri’s government is trying to improve its image among the poor ahead of October’s mid-term election by paying young supporters to do social work in shantytowns surrounding the capital of Buenos Aires.

The youthful activists in their signature blue jackets are struggling to gain traction, however, in areas where the opposition Peronists have painstakingly built community networks since their founder Juan Domingo Perón governed in the 1940s.

Residents like Jorgelina Cardozo, who runs a free food pantry in the southern suburb of Florencio Varela, complain that Macri’s welfare workers are looking for quick photo opportunities rather than long-term improvement.

“They said they would keep coming but then, nothing. Nobody from the government calls any more,” she said.

Macri’s allies need a strong showing in mid-term elections to convince investors he can win a second term and execute an ambitious agenda of economic reform. Buenos Aires province is particularly important as it is home to a quarter of the national electorate, much of it either working-class or without work.

Macri was elected in late 2015 on promises to dismantle the heavy-handed trade and currency controls favoured by his predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a Peronist who financed her government’s deficit by printing pesos. Macri eked out a surprise win in Buenos Aires province in 2015. But he has cut popular energy and transportation subsidies to get the country’s finances in order, earning some enemies in low-income suburbs.

Looking to strengthen ties to the hardscrabble communities, Macri’s “Acá estamos” (“We’re Here”) programme pays about US$500 per month to 250 young people supporting independent organisations that provide food and social services and organise sport and cultural events.

‘DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY’

Fernández de Kirchner’s opponents say she and her fellow Peronists bought votes with generous government spending in the poor and heavily populated circle of suburbs around the capital.

Macri’s government, composed of many former bankers and executives, says they are more genuinely concerned with social welfare and with fighting corruption.

“The policy under the previous administration was clearly understood: you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” Pedro Robledo, the 25-year-old head of the Acá estamos programme, told Reuters. “Social workers under the Macri government are doing things differently.”

People like María Cañete, who runs a soup kitchen providing for 340 children up from 200 in 2015 in the suburb of Quilmes, remain sceptical.

“With the previous government I did not want for anything. It’s more difficult now. The food we distribute is not arriving like it used to,” said Cañete, adding that she sometimes dips into her own pension to buy the food.

A third of the Senate and half the Lower House of Congress are up for election in October. Macri’s Let’s Change (Cambiemos) coalition is not expected to win a majority for either chamber.

But if his allies beat candidates affiliated with Fernández de Kirchner, who may run for a Senate seat in Buenos Aires province herself, investors will take heart in Macri’s 2019 prospects.

“If Macri’s allies gain ground in the October election, he will start looking like a two-term president,” said political analyst Rosendo Fraga.

LEGACY

While his supporters are mostly upper and middle class, Macri says he would like his mandate to be judged on his ability to lower the national poverty rate, now above 30 percent.

Macri’s government formed alliances with moderate Peronists and passed legislation early in his term, ending a decade-long dispute with hold-out creditors and passing a budget aimed at cutting the deficit.

But the government was forced to moderate its proposal for an income tax reform last year and a capital markets reform eagerly awaited by investors has lulled.

For a government bent on modernising the economy, nostalgia for the old days can be a formidable foe. Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her late husband Néstor, won two presidential elections.

“Things were better when Fernández was president,” said Micaela Benítez, an unemployed 22-year-old attending a government-sponsored event in the suburb of San Miguel.

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