Buenos Aires, Argentina – Villa Lugano, a collection of large social housing complexes in Argentina’s capital, was founded in the 1900s by a Swiss man who dreamt of building a neighbourhood that would compare with his home in Lugano, Switzerland.
Today, it has become a symbol of the country’s working class – and it’s where I recently met Stella Maris Acosta and Walmiran Aramburu, two pensioners living off the minimum monthly instalment of about $170 each.
In a country where the monthly inflation rate has hit approximately 7 percent, their income is not enough to survive on. Stella Maris and Walmiran live in a modest apartment and they are struggling to pay the bills.
“The only dream I had was owning a home and now look at us,” Stella Maris told me. “I am still paying for the mortgage, utility services, plus all the medicines we need – we cannot buy enough food.”
She then stood up and went to the refrigerator, proudly displaying some of the vegetables that she said she picks out of the rubbish, drops into vinegar and cleans up before eating. “People throw away food but it can be preserved and used,” said Stella Maris. “I can turn this tomato into sauce, bake it and other things.”
Argentina is an agricultural powerhouse that produces food for 400 million people – yet amid soaring inflation and the daily struggles of people like Stella Maris and Walmiran, many here say the country’s ruling class has failed them over and over again.
People are used to living with high inflation; it’s been a problem for decades. But with the rate expected to hit 100 percent by the end of 2022, Argentines are hoping for miracles.
Unions are strong and they are pushing for wages to keep up with inflation. This year, deals have been reached for 65-percent salary increases and that’s one of the reasons why the government is still in control. There is anger, yes, and the government has lost support. But they are still in power.
The problem is that pensioners – who number about 7 million, of which 86 percent are getting the minimum amount every month – can rarely take to the streets and demand a better income.
“Inflation, what it does is that you pay the new prices with an old salary. It happens to all workers,” Eugenio Semino, a public defender for the elderly in Buenos Aires, told Al Jazeera.
He explained that even though labour unions have agreed to salary increases, that jump is already outpaced by the projected inflation, which “will be close to 100 [percent]”.
Argentina’s government knows there is a big battle ahead over inflation. The problem is that until recently, President Alberto Fernandez and Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner could not agree on the antidote to fight it.
Alberto Fernandez had been trying to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to cut down on subsidies and government spending, while Fernandez de Kirchner opposed many of his policies and insisted that inflation needed to be fought differently. But when she was president of Argentina until 2014, she, too, was unable to find a solution.
Now, Sergio Massa is the new minister of the economy – the third to take up the post in August alone after a string of government shakeups.
A seasoned politician with presidential ambitions, he has promised to jumpstart the troubled economy. Massa just came back from Washington, DC, where he made a desperate attempt to find investors and support for many of his policies. But whether his plan succeeds remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Argentina’s pensioners continue to struggle under the weight of the crisis.
Stella Maris has been working since she was 15. She has worked as a maid and a nurse, but now suffers from diabetes. Walmiran, who came to Argentina from Uruguay in the 1970s, worked as a doorman all his life. He, too, has health problems now, including epilepsy.
Despite these challenges, Stella Maris and Walmiran still go out every day to try to make an extra living. They search rubbish bins for bronze, copper, aluminium, and food. If they are lucky, they can make an extra $80 every month by selling the recyclable materials.
They say Argentina’s political class has failed them. They are forced to take to the streets to survive as inflation continues to soar. But they are not humiliated by it. They say it’s a job and for now, it’s the only thing they can do to help them make it until the end of the month.