They were from trade unions, social movements, organizations of relatives of the “disappeared,” student groups, political groups, social workers and many more. Some had never met nor marched together before but on the December 12th they united under a common banner and with drums, fireworks, flags, puppets and chants sent a clear message to the Government of Argentina: Hunger is a Crime.
By early evening the square in front of the Government Palace in Buenos Aires was packed beyond capacity. And yet the people kept on coming. They crammed into the streets and avenues around the square – rows upon rows of them: children, teenagers, students, mothers, fathers, workers, the unemployed and the elderly. They were from trade unions, social movements, organizations of relatives of the “disappeared,” student groups, political groups, social workers and many more. Some had never met nor marched together before but on the December 12th they united under a common banner and with drums, fireworks, flags, puppets and chants sent a clear message to the Government of Argentina: Hunger is a Crime.
The March was convoked by National Popular Children’s Movement (Movimiento Nacional de los Chicos del Pueblo, MCP), which for the past six years has been mobilizing organizations nationwide behind its “Hunger is a Crime Campaign.” This year marked the largest to date with well over 50,000 participants representing various provinces and diverse organizations throughout Argentina. The march comes in the context of brutal threats and attacks against the MCP as well as anger at a predicted increase in unemployment, poverty and hunger as a result of the global economic crisis.
The march also comes as Argentina commemorates 25 years of democracy. In 1983, in the very same square in front of the Government Palace, the brutal military dictatorship which “disappeared” 30,000 people was brought to an end, and the first democratically elected President assumed power. Twenty-five years later, although civil and politic rights have vastly improved – indeed such a march would have been unthinkable during the dictatorship – the economic policies of exclusion and poverty initiated by the Military Generals in the 1970s have largely continued.
“What we have seen since ‘democracy’ in Argentina is a continuation of the pillaging of our wealth. The neoliberal economic policies imposed by the Military Generals have continued up until today. These policies introduced poverty, hunger and exclusion into Argentina,” says founder of the MCP Alberto Morlachetti, “Democracy works only when there is equality and inclusion – if there isn’t equality then what use is democracy? If there is hunger, then there isn’t freedom. If I’m hungry, then I can’t think – I am surviving but I am not thinking; I am not functioning. How can it be that in Argentina – a country which is rich and fertile – the majority of its young people go hungry?”
The statistics indeed are alarming. Poverty in Argentina – once one of the world’s wealthiest nations – has been steadily increasing over the past two decades. The most intense increase occurred under in the 1990s the leadership of President Carlos Menem who, loyal to the neoliberal doctrine, privatized vast numbers of State owned enterprises. The result was massive and almost chronic unemployment and an eventual economic collapse in 2001. While some economic gains have been made under the subsequent leadership of Nestor Kirchner and currently under Christina Kirchner, it is estimated today that of a population of 40 million, 14 million people live on or below the poverty line.
Most worrying however is the “young face” of poverty in the country. Half of the poor-in other words 7 million – are under the age of 18. Two million of these are malnourished and each day 25 children – mostly newly born – die from hunger. That is over 9,000 preventable deaths per year. . In addition, a recent survey carried out by the Ministry for Social Development revealed that 35% of young people between the age of 15-20 years living in marginalised suburbs of Buenos Aires believed that in five years time they would be die as a result of the unemployment, crime and drug addiction that plagues their communities.
It is in the face of these statistics that social justice activists founded the MCP. The movement consists of hundreds of organizations nationwide, from cooperatives and children’s homes to kindergartens working on all aspects of childhood development. MCP launched the “Hunger is a Crime Campaign” in 2002 with the aim of raising awareness of and denouncing child poverty in the country. In the past six years, the marches organised by the campaign, have crossed over 4,500km of the country and, according to Morlachetti, have “touched the conscience of Argentineans”
“Our condemnation of hunger is so right and just, it has had an impact. We are condemning the fact that 25 children die a day in a country which is rich with food and so any child that dies of hunger has effectively been murdered,” he says, while emphasising that “our campaign is against hunger, but fundamentally it is a campaign against the system that generates hunger – capitalism. It is a serial killer, it is killing children every day. As a system, capitalism will continue to produce poverty and to kill children just as it did yesterday and just as it did today. The only way of eradicating hunger, is to fight capitalism and that is at the centre of our campaign.”
The campaign has been so successful, however, that it has also had an impact totally unanticipated by the organisers – threats and repression. In the past eight months, seven young people associated with the MCP have been attacked and/or kidnapped in the province of Buenos Aires. The first attack took place on July 24th of this year when a child in Avelleneda, a suburb of Bueno Aires, was kidnapped for a number of hours during which he was told to end the Hunger is a Crime Campaign. Similar attacks took place in September and October, after which Morlachetti and colleagues held a meeting with the Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires and the Minister for Justice to express their concern. Nonetheless, on November 24th, 27th and 28th there were three further attacks. A young women and two young men respectively were kidnapped, drugged and left unconscious in different parts of the city. One of the victims is suffering from kidney damage and the other from severe mental trauma.
“The attacks hurt us, they demoralise us, they create fear,” says Morlachetti, “however, what our enemy hasn’t understood is that by attacking us like this they are converting the movement into a strong political force, something we never intended it to be. We started out as a movement of people denouncing hunger and now what we have noticed in the past few weeks since the attacks and in the run up to the march on December 12th is that we have become a political force with the capacity to convoke and unite hundreds and thousands of people from diverse organizations. This is something our enemy didn’t calculate.”
This is reiterated by Hugo Yasky, the General Secretary of the Argentinean Workers Central (CTA), a joint organizer of the December 12th march. “A multitude of organizations from different sectors joined together today. It is the first time that we have participated in this march, and we have done so to show solidarity with the young people in the MCP. Our participation represents our commitment: we will never stop supporting and embracing our young people.”
Yasky believes the march represents a historic moment for his organization as well as for social movements in the country as it represents a new socio-political space. “All the organizations and individuals who have gathered here today must begin to construct unity, to build bridges, bridges of gold, bridges that will be unbreakable. Together we will continue to fight, to organize and mobilise throughout the country until structural poverty, exclusion and hunger have been eliminated,” he says.
In front of the 50,000 strong crowd who filled the square and lined almost 10 blocks of the avenue leading to it, Pablo Michelli, joint Secretary of the CTA, stated that with just a third of the interest that the Government was paying on its so called foreign debt, hunger amongst young people could be eliminated. “The problem is the Government; it doesn’t want to re-distribute wealth. The debt it must pay is its debt to the people of Argentina, the debt of hunger, poverty and unemployment. We will continue to fight. We are here outside the Government Palace to shout out loud and clear that ‘Hunger is a Crime.'”
 From the report in Spanish”El Hambre es un Crimen: la infantilización de la pobreza en Argentina” 2005, CTA.
 For more information, see: Lara. Rodolfo. “Un 35% de los jóvenes pobres cree que morirá o vivirá excluido.” El Clarín (08/26/08).
For more information on the Hunger is a Crime Campaign go to www.pelotadetrapo.org.ar
Fionuala Cregan is a freelance journalist based in South America. She can be contacted at email@example.com