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Slum near summit expects empty promises

A slum just a mile from where presidents from around the Americas are meeting Friday reflects the mistrust that many in Latin America voice about ever improving their lives.
Leonardo Gonzalez, 21, joined by his son Julio, 4, works on his house in a slum near Friday's summit of American leaders in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
Leonardo Gonzalez, 21, joined by his son Julio, 4, works on his house in a slum near Friday's summit of American leaders in Mar del Plata, Argentina.Marcelo Hernandez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Across the street from luxury summer retreats for wealthy Argentines, children run through smelly alleys of a slum and play soccer in dusty lots littered with trash and rubble.

Nearly 1,000 people live in this “villa miseria,” Argentine Spanish for a shantytown, but few are paying attention to this weekend’s Summit of the Americas at an elegant oceanfront hotel a mile away.

The theme of the summit of 34 nations is jobs, but slum dwellers are not counting on those leaders to lift them from their misery. They say they have heard the promises for decades, but little has changed.

“If you’re born poor here, you’ll probably die poor here,” said Segundo Aguirre, a 52-year-old construction worker who helped build some of the $150,000 brick houses yards from his one-room concrete block home. “We’re always hoping for something better, but the promises are always hollow, and nothing happens.”

Most people here make less than the Argentine minimum wage equivalent to $150 per month. The work is irregular — mostly low-paying summer jobs selling trinkets, cleaning homes or doing yard work for rich and middle-class Argentines at this beach resort about 250 miles from the capital, Buenos Aires.

Economics of income
Their story plays out across Latin America and the Caribbean, where per capita income averages $3,280, World Bank statistics show. That’s compared to $24,470 in Canada and $37,870 in the United States.

President Bush is poised to unveil a job proposal for the region at the summit, but analysts doubt it will have much effect.

“The main problem is that Washington is in denial about the economic failure,” said Mark Weisbrot, who specializes in Latin American economics for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “More Latin American leaders are aware of it, but it does not seem to be discussed. What is needed at a bare minimum is some discussion about what has gone wrong.”

Bush is also expected to push his long-term solution for the region, a 34-nation Free Trade Area of the Americas that he says will generate wealth and create jobs.

But some blue-collar Argentines say they are weary of hearing about the long-stalled proposal. Thousands of anti-Bush protesters from 25 nations in the hemisphere have descended on the city of 700,000 to bitterly oppose it and many wanted Bush to simply stay away.

“We’re mad that Argentina even opened the door for his visit,” said Wayma Maman, a 50-year-old Indian who traveled three days on a bus to participate in protests against Bush. “For us, he’s the devil and he should stay away with his proposals.”

Sick of the summit
A few blocks away, Donato Gonzalez was mixing concrete with his sons and beginning work on an addition to his one-room house in the shadow of a soccer stadium. He buys a sack of concrete whenever he has enough spare money from his job eking out an existence reupholstering furniture.

But Gonzalez, 49, said he only had the time to work on the house Friday. His usual clients, middle-class Mar del Plata residents, left the city for Buenos Aires because summit security has closed down much of the city.

Gonzalez immigrated from Uruguay four years ago, thinking there would be plenty of work in Mar del Plata because of its thriving tourism. But he is not surprised life did not improve.

“The conditions are the same as they were in Uruguay,” Gonzalez said. “But remember, this is South America.”

So will the summit make a difference?

“I’m just sick of hearing about it,” he said.