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To Live and To Die in Poverty in Bariloche. As told by Maria, June 20, 2010.

It’s very difficult to be poor in Patagonia. It’s difficult to be poor anywhere. But imagine living without utilities, without water and without a sewage system in a city where it rains for three months straight during the fall, then in winter it is 14°F with a foot and a half of snow and ice. Imagine living in small houses made of wood and scrap metal, heated by burning wood that must be stolen or scavenged, or by burning whatever you can find; living above the city at the foot of the mountains (the most impoverished neighborhoods are always located in the highest and most inhospitable areas of the city), in a region infamous for its wind, which reaches beyond 80 km/hr for days or weeks at a time. Imagine living forty minutes from downtown, in a neighborhood where public transportation only comes once every hour and at unpredictable times, where you must wait for forty minutes in rain and snow.

Each winter in the neighborhoods of these smalls houses inhabited by the people of Patagonia (neighborhoods with names such as “Goat’s Gorge,” “Little Buenos Aires, or “Seizure 15,”), dozens die from carbon monoxide poisoning or from fires, because the wood is burned in make-shift stoves or trash cans.

In one of these neighborhoods, a pediatrician that I know asked a patient, “How old are you?” The patient responded “I don’t know.” “Okay, well when is your birthday?” “I don’t know. What is a birthday?” was the child’s response.

Right now, it’s true that it is hard to be poor in Patagonia, but it is even harder to be poor in Bariloche.

Bariloche isn’t one city, it’s two. Geographically, it is organized to represent this dual identity: from the mountains to the lake is the lower city. The other side, extending across the plateau toward to foot of the mountain, is the upper city.

Lower Bariloche is a wealthy city, the streets filled with four by four trucks. Downtown resembles Switzerland or Germany. This is the city where neighbors marched to protest the extradition of Erich Priebke. This is the city where they organized the famous march to celebrate a “community of immigrants,” but in truth it was a march for the German, Austrian and Swiss descendants, excluding the thousands of Chileans and Bolivians who live here today. This is the city where the armed forces and the Church still maintain a strong presence.

Lower Bariloche is comfortable, attractive and endearing, with rental homes as expensive or more so than those in Buenos Aires.

Upper Bariloche, on the other side of the mountains that give Bariloche its breathtaking views, has none of this. It does not have paved roads, gas, sewage systems nor public transportation. There is no view of Lake Nahuel Huapi, nor of the mountains on the other side. In the past, it has had the highest unemployment rates of the entire provide of Río Negro. There is no hospital nor waste disposal service. Youth make up the majority of its inhabitants and there are many homicides, some of which are realized for political reasons.

Thanks to the mountains that hide this scene, the inhabitants of Lower Bariloche don’t have to share their city with us, nor do they have to see its realities. It is perfectly possible to never cross over to “the other side,” and live as if Upper Bariloche does not even exist.

“Except when the inhabitants of Upper Bariloche decide to come down” as one judge said. They would come down to kill or to rob. They would come down to alter the natural equilibrium of a city that in truth, is two.

Most of the time, the only contact that the two cities have with each other is on occasion a crime or an act of violence. The border patrol between the upper city and lower city, symbolically and literally, is obviously left to the Río Negro police. A police force whose principal role, from the community’s perspective, is to ensure that the upper and lower cities do not come into contact.

A police force whose motto is “authorize and stand back.” A police force that, like all regional polices forces in our country, is self-sanctioned, except when they are compelled to intervene by public pressure. A police force that just over a month ago killed an adolescent in the city of Viedma.

Three people were killed by the bullets of policemen, two of which were young women.

But, because they were not from the lower city but rather the upper city, these deaths carried a different value. A lower value, one might say.

The governor requested that we not “politicize this tragedy” and said nothing more. Up until today, he has only announced the transfer of the Commissioner. Nothing has been said of what will happen to those responsible, nor of any reforms for a police force with such a horrific past.

The regional and national newspapers mentioned little of the incident; including on Page 12, where news of the deaths was restricted to a small box. The Río Negro newspaper gave more coverage to the store-owners of downtown, who feared that the poor would return again, than to the pain felt by the neighborhoods.

The mayor of Bariloche requested that the national government send troops, having consulted only with the store owners, and not with the community organizations of the Upper Bariloche.

It seemed that the only thing that mattered was to reconstruct the divide between the two cities, to return the natural order that should not have been broken.

This is how it is. It’s always hard to be poor; but it’s harder to be poor in Bariloche (Maria is an inhabitant of Bariloche).