Retirees protest meager pensions in Argentina

August 25, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Norma Pla, a pale-eyed woman with badly decayed teeth, said her pension check from the Argentine government does not come close to covering food, utility bills and property taxes, so she must rely on support from her grown children. She lives with two single children in a small, three-bedroom home that she and her late husband built with their own hands.

"I have my house, such as it is, but there are other grandparents who don't," she said.

Some elderly Argentines are forced to sleep in train stations and under viaducts, but such extreme hardship is not widespread. "Luckily, there aren't many homeless," a sociologist said. "The family is much more supportive here than in the United States."

Still, many Argentines seem to ignore the growing desperation of cash-strapped retirees. For two years, Ms. Pla led marches by groups of retired people every Wednesday from the presidential palace to the Congress. Hardly anyone paid attention. "All of us grandparents," she said, "were invisible."

Then Ms. Pla and some of her friends camped out in downtown Buenos Aires on Plaza Lavalle. Sometimes more than 100 protesters spent the night. As publicity stunts, they brought in a cow and planted a garden. Finally, Argentina took notice, and Ms. Pla became a celebrity. In one highly publicized encounter, she evoked tearful words of sympathy from the economy minister.

After 70 days, police in early June evicted the plaza campers. They have arrested Ms. Pla twice on charges of disobeying authorities by distributing food in the Plaza since then. But she continues to protest.

Mounting anger about the government pensions, badly eroded by double-digit inflation, is evident among those who march in protest:

* Maria de Fernandez, a widow who lives with a daughter and two teen-age grandchildren in a two-room apartment. Ms. Fernandez receives a pension but needs to supplement it by working part time as a maid. "I put money into the system for 40 years," she said. "Today I am 70 years old and I'm still working."

* Rafaela Carmen Garcia, 66, a former bookkeeper who never married. "I rented an apartment all my life, . . . now I have to live in a rooming house." An unfurnished room without meals costs half her pension. "And . . . I have to pay electricity. There's a meter in the room."

* Teodoro Garcia, 71, a bachelor who lives with two retired brothers. "I worked my whole life -- for what?" he asked. "I had a car. I don't have one anymore."

* Maria Isabel Zuniga, 79, a former shirt-factory worker who lives alone in a two-room shack on an unclaimed lot. Ms. Zuniga grows her own greens in a small garden. "If I didn't, what would I do, buy vegetables? That's crazy. How could I afford it?"

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