Argentine bishop denounces 'scandalous' inequality in Argentina

SALTA, Argentina (CNS) -- Argentine Bishop Fernando Bargallo of Moreno has denounced what he called the "scandalous" inequality that exists in Argentina.

Bishop Bargallo, head of the local Catholic aid agency Caritas Argentina, told Catholic News Service that although he recognizes the benefits economic growth has brought to Argentina he questioned whether it is fair that "5 percent of the country controls 25 percent of the wealth" while 25 percent "of the population lives below the poverty line."

Bishop Bargallo said in late June that the result of increasing inequality is the existence of two Argentinas: "one an affluent nation that wields economic power" and the other "a marginalized people who live on the outskirts of cities and in rural towns."

Jorge Colina, chief researcher at the Buenos Aires-based think tank IDESA, said the liberalization of the economy by lowering import taxes, cutting government spending and denationalizing industries in the 1980s and 1990s "left almost half the workforce behind."

"Many of these workers were formerly employed by the state in positions that did not require a high level of education or skills," he said, noting that when economic liberalization forced cutbacks in state employment, many were left unemployable in the more discerning, private labor market.

"Forty percent of the labor force was left working in the informal economy," or the black market, said Colina, who added that "many are still there."

The positive efforts the government is making at redistribution are not reaching the poor as "these benefits are delivered through the formal sector, thereby excluding workers in the informal sector," he explained.

With the current dual economy, responsibility for the welfare of those working outside the system is left to organizations such as Caritas Argentina, which is part of Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-based confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service organizations.

"Caritas only provides basic assistance to the poor; the church cannot solve the problem of inequality," said Bishop Bargallo.

"It is ultimately the responsibility of the state," he said, noting that there also needs to be "a broad alliance of all sectors of society including the government, business and civil society to find the solution."

Much of the rural poverty that Bishop Bargallo talks of is found in northwestern Argentina, far from the central provinces that produce the vast amount of Argentina's agricultural wealth.

In the town of La Quiaca, located on the border with Bolivia, inequality and poverty recently provoked an unusual form of dissent. Claretian Father Jesus Olmedo, or "Padre Jesus" as the locals call him, and 30 of his companions blockaded the border crossing. Using rope and planks of wood, they staged a crucifixion of themselves in protest.

Father Olmedo told CNS June 14 that this was a "desperate cry for help" in a town where "50 percent of the children suffer from malnutrition."

After three days of demonstrations with "little media interest and no government response," he said, they marched across town and occupied the local municipal buildings. The police were called in and forcibly removed the protesters using a combination of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Subelza Tomasa, who lives on the outskirts of La Quiaca with her eight children, receives a basic government plan of about $50 a month, a sum she said is "impossible to feed her family with."

Father Olmedo said this contrasts with "a government-paid provincial deputy's salary of about 6,000 pesos (US$1,900) per month."

This happens, he added, in a country which "produces enough food to feed eight times its population."

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