Julia Mayuri’s life has changed a lot, but in some ways not at all, in the weeks since she was forced off a piece of land that she and thousands of others had been squatting on in a town called Guernica, south of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires.
She is no longer living in a makeshift tent. She is no longer cutting her own firewood, fetching her own water and braving the rain that slapped against black garbage bags stretched wide to form her roof.
These changes generated mixed emotions for her: On the one hand, they made her tear up as she recounted the economic circumstances of the COVID-19 lockdown that had led her to the Guernica squat; on the other hand, they made her proud of her resilience and ability to survive as a homesteader on a 100-hectare plot of windswept land. “I found a lot of people who were really united, good people who were in the same situation as me, with the same objective and we helped each other a lot,” said Ms. Mayuri, 45. “We took care of ourselves.”
What has not changed for Ms. Mayuri and the others who had tried to build a future in Guernica is the situation that drove them there in the first place: Already struggling to survive in an eroding economy, they were pushed over the edge by the COVID-19 pandemic and out of apartments they could no longer afford because their work had evaporated. Ms. Mayuri, a single mother who lost her job as a caregiver, is living at a friend’s house now.
“I went to Guernica out of necessity,” she said.
Land occupation – commonly known as squatting – has been one of the most controversial fallouts of the continuing health crisis in Argentina, the third-most populous country in South America. The government there imposed one of the longest continuing lockdowns in the world – more than seven months – in response to COVID-19.
The economic consequences have been grim. There were 3.4 million fewer jobs registered in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses reported. Most of the job losses were in the informal sector, which provides no safety net to workers.
Land occupation, which is not new in Argentina, became more prevalent during the pandemic. But it was met with the strong arm of the state. Those who claimed land were considered usurpers by the judicial system and much of the mainstream media. A wave of evictions followed.
In the case of Guernica, much of the contested land was slated to become a country club and gated community. Its purported owners went to court to get it back. The courts agreed that those who had set up camp were doing so illegally and ordered they be cleared out.
This particular land occupation in Guernica became a symbol for those who sought to frame the debate around the protection of private property, and those who held it up as a collective way to ensure the right to a decent place to live.
Rio de la Plata
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:
TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
Rio de la Plata
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;
OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
Rio de la Plata
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
For decades, land occupations in Argentina have been one of the primary ways in which the low-income sectors have accessed a piece of property. When the last dictatorship came to an end in 1983, urban settlements began to form that differentiated themselves from the slums, or villas miserias. Rather than the haphazard construction and warren of laneways that characterize the slums, the new settlements sought to mirror the urban landscape. They mapped roads, parcelled out plots of land, and had a strong social and political aspect to their organization.
The idea was to break with the poverty that characterizes the slums but also to make it harder for the state to refuse to recognize the new settlements as a city, said Marcela Perelman, director of research at the Centre for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires. Swaths of what is now a ring of municipalities around Buenos Aires started out as these kinds of settlements.
Over the years, that spirit became warped by mercantile interests that sought to take advantage of the vulnerable by selling land, often illegally. Notwithstanding that, the necessity that motivated people to take a piece of land as their own never disappeared, said Ms. Perelman, an urban sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires.
President Alberto Fernandez acknowledged that usurpation is a crime, but described Guernica as a “desperate act done before a society that is not providing answers.” He said the solution is building affordable housing on government-owned land. “I don’t endorse the occupation in Guernica, but that’s not a crime,” he said in October.
Courts thought differently, however, and Sergio Berni, the security minister of Buenos Aires province, made a show of law enforcement’s might, publishing a dramatic video of his police force preparing for and executing Guernica’s dismantling.
“The right to life, the right to freedom and the right to private property are not negotiable,” Mr. Berni said.
On Oct. 29, some 4,000 police stormed Guernica, torching the precarious dwellings, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at families and supporters who resisted by hurling stones or other objects, until they were all removed and bulldozers destroyed what remained.
“They didn’t give us a chance to remove anything. Not even the children,” said Ms. Mayuri, referring to how the youngest dwellers of Guernica were forced to witness the police action. “We ran in all directions. Mothers fainted. Friends who couldn’t walk because they had been hit by rubber bullets. And others who fought back, to try to push the police back,” Ms. Mayuri said. “I lost everything there.”
Although it perished, Guernica had represented a return to the kind of parcelled out and politically organized land occupation that existed before market interests moved in, Ms. Perelman argued. She cited its attributes: “The organization by block, with theme-based assemblies; the feminist imprint; the attention to shared care; and dialogue with the state. It once again had a social and political fabric that is very rich and that, although it didn’t prosper this time, we see as hopeful news.”
Back in mid-October, with the sun beating down and his relatives hammering away on wooden beams, Valerio Gimenez was hopeful in Guernica. The police had been stopping squatters who were entering the property and confiscating their building supplies, but Mr. Gimenez, 25, had been able to get material in and a small house was taking shape.
He grimaced as he recalled the blow he was dealt this year at the beginning of the pandemic. “The lockdown kicked off on a Thursday. I usually got paid on Fridays or Saturdays, and it hit me on a Thursday, so it was a month before I was able to cash my salary,” he said. “It hit me bad, because my job was unregistered. So for six months I was surviving off the little savings that I had. I was saving to buy a house, actually, and I spent it all.”
Through a family member, he heard about the land occupation in Guernica when it started in July, and with the help of his sister, he had been keeping watch over the family’s site there for months before being able to start construction. “A lot of these plots are empty because people can’t get materials in to build anything,” Mr. Gimenez said.
A survey carried out in the days before the eviction – a joint effort between a commission of people living there, activists, human-rights groups and government officials – found that 4,417 people were living in Guernica, comprising 1,400 families. Community leaders had estimated 3,000 children were among them.
In the settlement’s more than three months of existence, it had been divided into four neighbourhoods. It had a health clinic, served by volunteer doctors. It had several soup kitchens, an education centre, at least one corner store and space set aside for public squares. Neighbours had been providing water, but people were starting to dig their own wells and using the earth excavated to make adobe bricks that formed the foundation of houses.
The community had many single-mother households, some of whom had fled situations of domestic violence. The education centre also provided a place for them to leave their children so they could attend neighbourhood assemblies.
“That’s very important, because the mothers are taking care of their children all the time, because many of the fathers go out to work, or do odd jobs. So that’s an important collaboration, so that women here can organize, have a voice and secure their rights definitively,” said Gimena Morales, a teacher who volunteered at Guernica.
People who lived in other areas of land occupation also visited Guernica to learn about how it was organizing.
“This is a very big fight,” said Azucena Mendoza, surrounded by a group of women who had travelled from La Plata, the capital city of Buenos Aires province, to the Guernica occupation in mid-October to support it.
“There isn’t a business here or anything. There is a necessity. A housing necessity. The state needs to figure it out. The state invents so many things, why doesn’t it invent something that is real.”
In the weeks leading up to the eviction, the provincial government tried to get people to leave voluntarily. It offered money to cover rent, or building supplies to construct elsewhere. It promised plots of land at a future date. It asked the courts to delay eviction as it relocated families, and it said hundreds had in fact moved on before the police went in. It also unveiled a broader financial assistance plan to help cover rent for families in critical need.
But some of those who stayed until the end in Guernica made it clear that their aim was deeper. They branded their fight as “tierra para vivir” – land to live – framing the piece of earth they sought as a key element of life.
Still, the dominant discourse in Argentina continues to be about the protection of property, and not the right to housing, Ms. Perelman said.
“The reality is that there was no house that was threatened with intrusion in this context, but the situation is expressed as if that risk exists,” she said. “I think that’s perverse because that makes potential victims out of people who are not victims, and it denies the condition to people who don’t have somewhere to live.”
People such as Ms. Mayuri may be empty-handed now, but they have not wavered in their mission.
“We’re going to keep at it,” she said. “Because there are a lot of people who need land.”
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