Time to Reactivate Networks of Solidarity

Although most Latin American governments continue [as of February 2009] to view the global crisis as something that does not concern them, working-class people have been facing price-increases of food and other basic necessities for over a year. The specter of hunger is knocking on the door of the poor. From a certain perspective, the downtrodden are well prepared to confront the new deprivations which already seem inevitable, but the next few years will nonetheless put to the test both the social policies of governments and the many networks of solidarity that crisscross the zones of poverty.

Poverty has grown at a dizzying rate. In 1980 Latin America had 136 million poor people; today it has 200 million – 40% of the population – with 10 million more since the onset of the crisis. It is the region of greatest inequality in the world. The ratio between the income of the richest ten percent and that of the poorest ten percent is 50 to 1. In Bolivia, it is 168 to 1; in Colombia, 63 to 1; in Brazil, 58 to 1; in Paraguay, 73 to 1. By contrast, the ratio in Spain is 10 to 1, and in Norway, 6 to 1.

How and when did this ratio increase? The Latinobarómetro compares access to basic goods in Latin America in 1995 and 2007. The figures are eye-opening: access to drinking water dropped from 90% to 83%; ownership of a refrigerator, from 85% to 77%; toilets, from 76% to 64%; washing machines, from 57% to 48%; hot running water, from 57% to 35%; automobiles, from 33% to 22%. And this is after five years of growth; the figures in 2003 were much worse.

These data reflect a serious situation. First, a considerable portion of the middle sectors fell into poverty or into situations very similar to those of the poorest people. Second, this fall was very rapid, taking less than a decade. Third, this very fact tells us that poverty today is more heterogeneous and is more likely to produce different effects from those that it produced up to now. Finally, the poor in Latin America are increasingly aware of the reasons for their poverty. There is a new political consciousness, different from the traditional one that would entrust its demands to the party or the labor union, in the hope that they would be met thanks to the good policies of leaders and rulers.1

Now things are very different. In the last few months I visited two of Buenos Aires’s villas miseria (shantytowns) – homes to the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society, including rural migrants from northern Argentina alongside Paraguayans and Bolivians. Villa 31 of the Retiro district, in the center of the city surrounded by skyscrapers and freeways, and Villa 21 of Barracas, a neighborhood torn by plant-closings, both have dense networks of solidarity and mutual assistance. The former has about 50,000 inhabitants; the latter, about 40,000, although the figures are very imprecise.

In Retiro I spent a long time in the neighborhood soup kitchen (comedor popular) named for Father Mugica, a priest assassinated by paramilitaries 30 years ago. Six hundred people eat there every day. The government provides food for 300; this has to be doubled, and all of it has to be cooked. All this is done by the voluntary labor of a large group of mothers who work every day from dawn until 3 p.m., giving children breakfast before school and lunch after school. How can one measure all that energy, all that work donated to the community, allowing it to escape hunger? In the single community of Retiro, there are 20 comedores that are run in the same way. How many hours per day of unpaid labor does this represent?

I was also in the villa of Barracas. The pattern is very similar. The whole villa was built by voluntary labor (trabajo solidario), from homes to schools and community facilities. Father Pepe, who has lived in the villa for 12 years, questions the concept of “aid” and argues that “we must learn from the poor.” He explains how they build their houses: when they make cement foundations or roofs, several families cooperate spontaneously for a whole weekend. While the men make the foundation, the women cook and the children play and help. Then comes the fiesta – the indispensable element that lubricates all social interaction.

When a new family decides to build its home, the other families pitch in. People thus take turns helping each other – in a completely natural way and without needing a formal “organization.” The inhabitants’ first collective project was to fill in parts of the land that had been flooded. Then comes the slow construction of family homes, which can take up to ten years and can accommodate extended families, including grandparents, married children, and even cousins or distant relatives.

The strength of the community bond keeps costs down, as only the materials have to be paid for. The church cost nothing, because hundreds of neighbors took turns doing voluntary work and organized fiestas to raise funds and buy materials. What you have here is a communitarian economic system (economía popular comunitaria) which has been able to build whole districts, with everything they need. The communitarian constructions and works of social self-help would be impossible without the solidarity of the neighborhood. An incomplete list of the activities carried out by the parish (which is not the only local entity to work with the neighbors) includes six chapels which serve as genuine social and cultural centers. The parish also supports eight comedores, although the district has about 15 to 20 comedores populares total. There are also tutoring services, drug counseling, and cafeterias, as well as sports and camping programs that have served more than a thousand young people in the last few years. Finally, the parish serves its older residents, who are among the least protected.

This kind of support work is carried out in all the poor districts of the continent. In Lima, where there are thousands of comedores populares and committees to provide milk; in los Bañados in Asunción, where neighbors sell food and hold raffles to buy medicine for sick people because there is no healthcare service; in the outlying districts of the continent’s vast cities, where Mike Davis intuits that the future of humanity will be defined2 – in all these places, daily life is sustained neither by states nor by churches but rather by the voluntary labor performed above all by poor women/mothers.

These impressive networks arose in periods of acute crisis – in the ‘70s with the sharpening of poverty, in the ‘90s with neoliberalism – and they have managed to survive despite the attempts of current governments to institutionalize them. These networks of the subaltern sectors are what enable them to live through crises, albeit with great suffering. Miraculously, they make possible survival with dignity.

— Translated by Victor Wallis


1. On the grounding of this consciousness, see Raúl Zibechi, “Subterranean Echoes: Resistance and Politics ‘desde el Sótano,’” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 3 (November 2005).

2. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London & New York: Verso, 2006).

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