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OP-ED | 05-09-2020 09:59

Where there’s a need, there’s a whole lot more than a right

Neither respect for the law nor acute housing needs should be denied – and nor should they form the opposing sides of a new grieta.

The problem of squatters now surfacing between the cracks of the pandemic has served to add one more issue to the grieta rift between permissive and repressive attitudes, but it is essential to find an approach which is neither naively passive nor socially insensitive. For a start, rift or no rift, from the Mapuche perspective now making the problem of land seizure such a hot issue in the Villa Mascardi area near Bariloche, we are all squatters usurping this country from its original inhabitants (a definition which from a rigorous historical perspective would also include the Mapuches themselves, who displaced earlier tribes in the second quarter of the 19th century when human presence in Argentina dates back at least 10 millennia, the Anglo-Saxons rather than the Celts of Patagonia, so to speak).

But let us stick to today’s problems and especially around this metropolis. A problem reflecting a housing shortage which is worldwide – when setting its Millennium Development Goals at the start of this century, the United Nations calculated that the billion or so people then homeless or in substandard housing on this planet would treble by mid-century – and also a problem which perhaps should not exist at the land level, at least in a mostly empty country like Argentina.

Yet with so much idle land to spare and with such acute social needs magnified by the pandemic, when millions of families are stretched to feed themselves never mind pay any rent, the ongoing land seizures remain illegal as even such intransigently progressive government figures as Security Minister Sabina Frederic and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof (and not just the Sergio Bernis of the world) are being forced to admit. The acute housing crisis would seem to be a classic case favouring Eva Perón’s famous dictum “Where there’s a need, there’s a right” yet one of the central problems with this need is that it gives birth to not only a right but also to a business racket. The latter is a key factor behind the government giving pause to its original passivity in the name of social justice, a U-turn driven by the Greater Buenos Aires mayors rather than the Berni-style hardliners in government ranks. The mayoral motives are partly electoral (taking on board the indignation of thousands of low-income families who have scraped and sacrificed all their lives for their little acre, only to see intruders not exempt from criminal elements grab land and public services rent-free and tax-free) but are also a reaction to slum racketeers poaching on their traditional turf – brokering the land rights of newcomers was a key pillar of political patronage for town halls until threatened by this new breed of land speculators.

The defence of law and order thus has a broad base of support both across the political spectrum and in opinion polls while these mass overnight invasions often enough seem too organised to be the spontaneous despair of the wretched of the earth. Moreover, breaking the law sometimes hurts the squatters themselves and not just other citizens, especially when the most open targets for illegal occupation include dumpsites containing toxic waste. And yet the legalistic arguments are not enough – nobody should fool themselves over endemic poverty being the main driving-force here, rather than political agitators, racketeers, pseudo-Mapuches or whatever.

Neither respect for the law nor the acute housing needs should be denied – and nor should they form the opposing sides of a new grieta. Now that the government has moved towards balancing the two stances, perhaps the opposition should start doing the same, instead of just stridently defending law and order. Far from impossible because there is no reason why social justice should be a monopoly of the left. Four decades ago the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto pioneered an approach which was conservative and capitalist as much as compassionate, arguing that shantytowns should be seen as potential goldmines rather than blots on society because legalising their lots with property deeds instead of resisting their illegality would capitalise them as new real-estate markets, potentially bringing their residents into mainstream society. But local opposition politicians need not go back 40 years in time or look to Peru – less than two years ago the Mauricio Macri administration passed a law to expropriate shantytown land and then distribute property deeds to over 85,000 resident families, thus nationalising a similar 2014 City Hall initiative.

In conclusion, dare we suggest that this or other housing legislation might be more urgent than judicial reform?

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