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Lucien ChauvinMay 20, 2024
People pick through discarded produce at the central market for fruit and vegetables in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)People pick through discarded produce at the central market for fruit and vegetables in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Pablo Campodónico considers himself fortunate as he makes his way across Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.

Mr. Campodónico eats two square meals a day, and his current residence has heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, increasingly a luxury in a country pummeled by years of economic crisis.

At 49, Mr. Campodónico says he has established a daily routine that works for him while he figures out his next move. His breakfasts and lunches are provided by a soup kitchen run by the church, and his go-to lodging these days is a spot at the city’s international airport, where he says he can get a few solid hours of sleep without anyone harassing him.

“I have been blessed. Despite living on the street, I have been able to avoid the terrible fate of many who are homeless, who are invisible to the rest,” said Mr. Campodónico over breakfast at the Mother Camila Dining Room, a soup kitchen run by the Poor Sisters of Saint Joseph of Buenos Aires.

Argentina has been in a state of economic upheaval for years with two constants—a continuous increase in poverty and corresponding efforts by the Catholic Church to respond to that need. This year poverty and demands for services have spiked as President Javier Milei’s government attempts to change Argentina radically at the five-month mark of his presidency.

“Conditions have been getting worse year after year because of the situation facing the country. We are not only under pressure from growing demand but from increasing costs that are making it harder to stretch what little we can offer,” said Sister Norma Itatí Arronda, who coordinates the meals and services of the Mother Camila Dining Room.

According to the Catholic University of Argentina’s Social Debt Observatory, almost a third of Argentines lived below the official poverty line 10 years ago; in January 57 percent of the population was below the poverty line.

“We have had high poverty rates for years, and no government has been able to reduce them,” said Eduardo Donza, a researcher at the observatory. “President Milei won because he offered a profound change. He pledged to do things completely differently to eliminate inflation and the deficit.”

Mr. Milei, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, took office last December and immediately implemented fiscal adjustments that devalued the national currency and lifted government price controls on most goods and services. His recipe for large-scale reform may be starting to work.

Inflation was running at 25 percent in December but fell to 12 percent in March. The government also registered a fiscal surplus of 0.2 percent of gross domestic product in the first quarter of the year, the first quarterly surplus since 2008. Argentina had a trade surplus of $4.25 billion in the first quarter, compared to a deficit of $1.3 billion a year earlier. And while inflation has started to ease—it was close to 300 percent in the 12 months ending in March—Argentina still has the highest annual inflation rate in the world.

But the president’s corrective measures have hit Argentinians hard, especially the poor. The fiscal surplus was achieved in part by sharp reductions in government outlays, including social spending. Government investment in public works was down by 87 percent, economic subsidies on transportation and utilities by 45 percent and outlays for pensions by 36 percent in the first quarter compared to a year ago.

Contributing to the trade surplus was a 9 percent increase in exports, but also a 24 percent drop in imports. Consumption of basic goods, food and clothing, has plummeted. Though that has meant lower inflation, it can hardly be considered good news for average Argentines.

The government has also reduced contributions to the more than 41,000 soup kitchens registered at the beginning of this year. According to civic society organizations, only around one-quarter of the registered soup kitchens are receiving adequate government support.

In April, the government signed a new agreement with Caritas, the Catholic Church’s domestic assistance agency in Argentina, to help supply the more than 1,200 soup kitchens it supports. Soup kitchens play a critical role in Argentine society, a channel through which government and international agencies, such as the U.N. Development Program, distribute food to the most vulnerable people. Many also offer additional services. The Mother Camila Dining Room, for example, offers shower facilities to homeless people who visit the kitchen.

“There are two competing visions of the changes,” said Mr. Donza. “The government is convinced that its shock treatment is necessary, and in a second stage, production will increase and, with it, employment. The other side sees the costs as too high and the benefits too few for the vast majority of Argentines. They believe this model cannot be sustained in the long run.”

Sister Norma said she is not concerned about politics but about the growing waiting list of people wanting a meal from the congregation’s soup kitchen and the cost of keeping it operating.

The soup kitchen opened in 1995 when Argentina was suffering through one of its cyclical recessions. It serves 40 people at breakfast and 80 people for lunch but has a waiting list of more than 400 people. Unlike similar centers, it serves only people who are 45 years old or older.

Sister Norma said that the soup kitchen’s regular benefactors have been forced to scale back their donations, and the rising costs for utilities and supplies are weighing on finances. The Milei government is unwinding subsidies for electricity and natural gas, with prices increasing as much as 700 percent.

“We have never lacked anything, but the economic situation today is tougher. Now, we are not only working with people who are homeless but also older people who can no longer make it to the end of the month and turn to us for food,” she said.

The country’s bishops stressed this final point in an open letter published in mid-April at the end of their annual meeting.

“Many older people are facing the drama of choosing between eating and buying medication because their pensions are not enough. Community soup kitchens are closing, and many neighbors go without the possibility of a daily meal,” the bishops warned.

Mr. Campodónico, who has lived on and off on the streets of Buenos Aires for 12 years, said it is painful even for someone like him, long experienced with homelessness, to see whole families now camped out in parks or the entranceways to the subway.

“The situation today is much harsher, but we have to remain hopeful. I believe in the living God who is always with us,” he said.

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