YOU COULD SMELL THE VEGETABLES being stewed from a few blocks away. The aroma pricked the noses of a group of the gendarmería—a security force with part-military and part-police functions. A few of them, wearing army green, were on alert under an overpass in south-west Buenos Aires that separates Flores, an area of middle- and working-class housing, from a neighbouring slum, or villa. The smell was coming from the Los Piletones Foundation in Villa Soldati, as the slum is known, where, every mealtime for five days a week, about five hundred people come for free meals. Since it was founded in a shed 18 years ago, the foundation has been transformed to hold two kitchens, a kindergarten, library and Saturday school, as well as medical and veterinary centres. Poor people from across the south of the Argentine capital come here to receive help they cannot get elsewhere—special foods for elderly diabetics, for example.
From one side of the overpass to the next the streets changed from tar to mud, and the May-morning rain had made a mess of them. About 15,000 people live in the ten blocks of Villa Soldati, in three and four-storey houses, from which the rain now dripped down. A dozen or so bedraggled stray dogs clamoured among people carrying pots wrapped in plastic bags, entering and exiting the Los Piletones dining hall. The foundation runs mostly on donations from private businesses and individuals. The city government supplies some bread, but it’s all gone before the end of breakfast. Isa, a volunteer cook, said food has had to be rationed in the last few years. Before, from about 2005 to 2010, when times were good, they had more donations and less people coming to eat, she explained. Now, it’s the other way around.
Not that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government would let on. The latest figures from the national statistics agency, INDEC, for the first half of 2013, put 4.7 percent of Argentina’s 41 million people below the poverty line. INDEC was supposed to release new data in April, but said it could not. Jorge Capitanich, Kirchner’s chief of staff, blamed the lack of new figures on a change in the basket of goods used to calculate the consumer price index, and said INDEC didn’t yet have the right methodology to work out a revised poverty level. Meanwhile, the Catholic University of Argentina, like other independent groups, says the poverty level is currently running at about 27 percent—which would account for more than 11 million people. In May, Capitanich faced fierce questioning in the Congress over the lack of government data on poverty. He has argued that the government does not hide information, and that official data on inflation, and consequently on poverty, are objective. He has also said that independent statistics are politically motivated—no doubt referring to the nebulous “enemies” of the ruling Front for Victory party, whom Kirchner and her supporters often accuse of trying to destabilise the government. As in the magic realism of Jorge Luis Borges, the country’s most celebrated writer, what is objective fact and what is illusion is unclear, and has been for several years now in Argentina.