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Rubbing Shoulders

When we started four years ago, we said: "let's not get involved with any political institutions". We knew of the corruption and believed that the best approach for us would be to stay clear. That's the way that I was brought up. Don't touch the corruption, it is poisonous. This approach makes a lot of sense...in New Zealand. This is Latin America. It has a long, dark history that has shaped and moulded it into what it is today. Corruption, is, unfortunately, part of that package. It is an element deeply entrenched in its history.

Latin America has been the testing ground of every colonial experiment that you could ever imagine! In the late fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal landed in the Americas. They tortured, massacred, and slaved their way for almost four hundred years, controlled by their greedy thirst for natural resources. Most Latin American countries achieved political independence within the nineteenth century, but this is where the USA stepped in and began their form of Neo Colonisation.

It started with military force to secure resources, but it evolved into a much simpler, passive approach, that came from the creation of a financial dependence. Sure, these countries had political independence, but also economic ‘dependence’ on financial investment from the big player in global economics.

The big guys found is much easier to control from a distance with their form of financial slavery. Every now and then they would bankroll a military dictatorship to keep the right connections in place and the smooth flow of resources. (This is an overly simplified version of events as to not dive into the black hole that is the history of Latin America. Read "Open Veins of Latin America" by Eduardo Galeano, if you want to put your swimming trunks on.)

So, during the four hundred years of Spanish and Portuguese rule, what happened when you and the lives of your family were at risk, and the most probable outcome was slavery, torture and an early death? You negotiated any way that you could. Morals did not even enter the equation. You begged, borrowed, stole and or killed, to protect yourself and your family. You would have taken any opportunity that surfaced! Dishonesty became a big part of it, and ultimately became accepted. Does the thought of morality enter your head, when you and your family are in a life and death situation? Does the thought of morality enter the heads of those who are enslaving, torturing and killing a civilisation?

So, what happens when the big guys (USA) slowly transition from "domination by torture and killing" to "domination by economic slavery"? (Mid to late twentieth century, until present) The small guys take any loose thread that they can get, and in whichever form they can get it. The easiest form of tit for tat within this context, is corruption. Give me something that you have, and I want, and I'll give you something that I have, and you want, and it would probably be best if we did it in secret. This dishonesty maintains connections and the flow of money. Over five hundred years, or around twenty generations, is a long time to implant dishonesty (for the good or the bad) into a way of life. I imagine that it might take another twenty generations to reverse that.

There you have it. My short theory on corruption in Latin America. It is obviously based on my limited research, (internet google searches and several books), and many assumptions made based on my individual biases, but I believe it necessary to give a little context based on the history of Latin America when considering the state of the current situation in Argentina. Argentina's specific history is another book in its entirety, but it is important to understand that there is a deep-seated corruption in this continent and this country, and it's not going away anytime soon.

When I arrived in Argentina, the best option seemed to be to not go near the corruption. In reality, if its entrenched within the socio-economic structure of the country, for us to function as an organisation on the ground, it would be impossible for us not to rub shoulders with it!

And rub shoulders with it, we have. Two weeks ago, at the inauguration of a local community support centre, I met the leader of the current corrupters! He is the president of Argentina and his name is Mauricio Macri. I don't have any Argentine friends who support him, and I completely understand why. Twenty-nine offshore companies located in the Bahamas and in Panama (Panama Papers), are related to the president, his family, and close business partners. By Argentine law, these types of companies are illegal. Enough said.

All politicians are currently on the campaign trail. The public will be going to the polls on October 22 to vote for the representatives and senators of Congress. Marci's political party has control in Lanús, the suburb where Food for Thought is located. This means that for the last couple of months they have been paving new roads, putting in new drainage pipes, making the plazas nice and pretty with new playground equipment and building new community centres. Ones like the community support centre that they inaugurated two weeks ago, located five hundred meters from Food for Thought. It seems to be the best way to get votes here in Argentina.

Two years ago, when we were kicked out of our first venue, we went on a desperate search for a new location for Food for Thought. We came across a guy called Mario. It wasn’t the first time we had encountered someone like Mario. He’s not a politician, but he is trying to work his way in. He rates himself as a well-connected person, will promise everything, and deliver nothing. We weren’t having any luck with finding a location, so we weren’t turning down any opportunities. Our first meeting with him and one of his contacts eventuated to nothing. 

A few months later, after finding the new location, where we are now currently functioning, Mario, defying his reputation, delivered! We never stayed in touch with him, but he contacted us. He had arranged us a meeting with the newly appointed Director of the Department of Social Development. Even though we didn’t really trust Mario, we thought it worth the while to have a meeting with the people responsible for social services in our suburb.

Luckily for us, our new partners, Foundation Arche, with whom we were now sharing the space, had a lot of experience in these types of meetings. The president of Foundation Arche is Jorge (George). He is a super down to earth guy, who has the best interests of the community at heart, and has been working for the Foundation for around 10 years! We let him do most of the talking as Valeria and I was very new to this type of encounter. I was particularly hopeless because, with my Spanish, I would misinterpret half of what was said!

To our surprise, the Director of the Department of Social Development seemed to speak the truth, with no BS. He didn’t promise us anything, but he outlined the current situation and said that he would do his best to help us out when the resources were available. Valeria and I had been very sceptical going into this meeting but were pleasantly surprised with the honesty of the director. He was a member of the political party with whom we ‘idealistically’ opposed, so at the same time, it seemed very odd for us to be seeking support from him.

Since that point Foundation Arche and Food for Thought have been in contact with the department of social development. They provided us with building material for the two new buildings that we built. They set us up with a meeting with ‘Banco de la Provincia’, which is a local bank who are seeking to support private organisations with building and infrastructure. They have also provided funding for us to provide workshops for the community in healthy cooking, garden and environment, and ‘Murga’ (a traditional street music with dance and percussion). They have also built a local community centre three blocks from our project, which we will definitely be using as it has computer suites, a small cinema, and a possible space to put in a community garden.

So, when they asked us to provide a healthy cooking workshop for adults during the inauguration of the local community centre, I agreed. Out of respect for the support that they have provided us, and is a great opportunity to provide this workshop to adults of the community, I believed it was a good idea. A good idea, even though their evil dark lord, Mauricio Macri, would be paying a visit. As part of his political campaign, he dropped in to shake hands and pose for photos.  

So, I got to shake hands with the president and exchange a few words. Even though the activist inside of me wanted to scream in disgust against his government’s policies in education, I smiled, shook his hand, and received a chummy punch in the stomach from the guy whose only interest was to smile back, have photos taken and continue on his campaign trail. I was also ready to describe our grassroots level project that supports children and their families of the community but realised pretty quickly that there was no interest on his behalf. So as quickly as he came, he went, and we continued on with our vegetable tart workshop focussed on feeding a family of six for less than $10.

The irony of it… The president is on his campaign to demonstrate and promote the amazing work that his government is doing to support local communities, and he is shaking the hand of a foreigner who is bringing in money from outside of the country to do just that, support a local community. It’s not a perfect and just world, and he is a far way off from achieving a real and beneficial support for the community, but at this point in time, the best way for his government to support local communities would be to support organisations like ours.

Over the last two years we have received some support from this government, and hopefully, in the next few years, we will receive some more. So, in less than four years of functioning here in Argentina, we have done a complete backflip. From not wanting to associate ourselves with any political movement, to receiving various forms of support from the very political movement that we oppose. The irony of it…

So, I suppose what I am trying to say, and what I have learnt up to this point in time living here in Argentina is that, it’s not clear-cut, it’s not black and white, there is no point in us being rigid in our moral standpoints, and it can be advantageous to change your mind. The reality of working on the ground here in Argentina is that it is messy, there are millions of contributing factors involved, and reasons for, things being the way they are. We have to be elastically flexible in the way that we think and move.

Yes, the country is run by dishonest, corrupt politicians, but for positive progress, we have to work closely, and possibly even collaborate with, those who are causing most of the damage. Despite all of the horrible stuff that takes place, (human rights abuses, corruption, backwards policies, the list goes on), they do try and make policies that they truly believe are good for the country, and we have to take advantage of any of those decisions that support the growth of our project.

Note: I wrote most of this blog over a week ago, so since then the elections have been and gone and Macri’s government now have complete control, but, we also received some good news. ‘Banco de la Provincia’ have agreed to invest around US$50,000 on the needed infrastructure improvements to the venue where Food for Thought functions. It is amazing news for us because it means that we can serve food is a space that now has windows, a floor and better insulation. We will also have a small music room and greatly improved security on site (better fences, security lights and an extra wall installed to close off a certain section of the site). This is great, but it doesn’t mean we are rich. We still have to fundraise the money to buy food and pay wages for the staff. That hasn’t changed, but at least the venue will be much more comfortable and inviting for everyone!