By Leandro Benmergui, Purchase College-SUNY
“To Enter into the Present” was the suggestive title of a 1971 booklet the Buenos Aires city government prepared for new residents of the Ciudad General Belgrano (CGB)—a housing complex of 3024 low-rise single-family homes intended for former shantytown dwellers located in La Matanza, Greater Buenos Aires. In its pages, pictures of the colonial village of Buenos Aires were mixed with those of the modern CGB, visually reproducing the modernizing imaginaries of urban experts like those in the Municipal Housing Commission (CMV), making explicit the coexistence of past and present in the same urban space. For urban experts, shantytowns evoked the precarious ranchos—the reproduction of the rustic rural house—that recent migrants built in the city with scrap materials. In the minds of social scientists and urban experts, shantytowns and their residents spoke to the incomplete transition from country and folk habits to modern and urban ones. They located this incomplete modernization primarily in poor urban areas which, according to tropes of modernization theory, resulted from both weak democracies and populations inclined to support populist, charismatic leaders and radical political ideas. Globally, policymakers, experts, and technical cadres, hoping to reshape society and citizenship in the 1960s, tried to jumpstart modernity through planned housing, “efficient” and “rational” policymaking, homeownership, and middle-class domesticity. In Argentina, this involved freeing urban development and housing construction from the political passions of the past, especially the ones associated with the pro-labor government of Juan Perón (1946-1955).
Recent scholarship on transnational urban history has explored how property rights, free-market ideology, and white, middle-class notions of modernity and citizenship shaped development encounters in the area of housing around the world. Data collection, standardization, financial assistance, and construction techniques helped to organize housing according to international guidelines, enabling opportunities for profit to foreign companies. As urban expertise and funding traveled, they made the world of housing more intelligible for global capitalism. My own research and forthcoming book explore the history of CGB as a transnational contact zone, an “encounter” between the discourses and material practices of modernization and development in the Latin American city during the Cold War, particularly the late 1960s and early 1970s. I explore how low-income housing projects in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires during the Alliance for Progress shaped the production of socio-spatial inequalities and persistent poverty in the global South. Housing worked as a central construct in the contentious definitions of development and citizenship in Latin America in the 1960s and early 1970s.
CGB and Villa Lugano I-II (a related 6,440-unit high-rise development) were part of a broader, major urban development program in the city of Buenos Aires, including the urbanization of the Bañado de Flores, a low-lying semi-rural area occasionally flooded by the River Matanza. The Parque Almirante Brown, as the urban program came to be known, was to include a planned university campus, recreational and sports facilities, leisure and entertainment spaces—and large-scale affordable housing complexes. More important, its development changed the city’s fabric by incorporating urban land, infrastructure, and affordable housing in the southwest of the city, a historically-neglected area with the second-largest concentration of informal housing.
Many earlier projects had envisioned the large-scale production of housing for working-class porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), but the real opportunity came in the 1960s. The Alliance for Progress, a program U.S. president John F. Kennedy created in 1961 to counter the influence of the Cuban Revolution, made available an influx of low-interest loans for social programs in Latin America, including housing. Financial resources came to Argentina from the new Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) while technical expertise came from the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID). U.S. and Latin American experts, consultants, and architects met with their Argentine counterparts in Buenos Aires to assess loan proposals, produce statistics and data to support the program, and, once approved, oversee the project. The city government mobilized sociologists, social workers, architects, and engineers, passed new laws, reformed public administration, and reorganized the CMV to meet the requirements of the IDB. In those encounters, CMV experts negotiated IDB’s demands that emphasized lowering construction costs, maximizing housing production (even at the expense of design), and meeting financial targets.
CGB provides a good case to explore a history of collusion between U.S. corporations and military dictatorships, enabled by connections with local governments and U.S. agencies. Field Argentina, an American based construction company formed in the early 1960s, built CGB. Granville E. Conway, owner of Cosmopolitan Shipping, Co., a company that carried oil between Argentina and the U.S., took over the company in 1966. Conway’s connections with influential members of Argentina’s maritime commercial world and the Navy, helped the company to diversify investments in housing with the sponsor of local government subsidies and AID guaranty mortgage funds. The first experience was Parquefield, a middle-class neighborhood built in the city of Rosario, Santa Fe, between 1964 and 1966, producing cast-concrete bricks on site to produce a more typical American suburb. But the opportunity to profit from privileged access to a municipal housing program that provided an economy of scale came after the military coup of 1966 that imposed a dictatorship until 1976. The new regime inaugurated the bureaucratic-authoritarian state, the rule of an alliance between U.S. corporations, fractions within the military, sectors of the financial industry linked with foreign capital, and high- and middle-rank technocrats. They all shared a belief in the reorganization of society according to non-partisan guidelines provided by rational planning and efficient policymaking.
In the new authoritarian context, the company enjoyed inside access to the plans for the construction of CGB: members of the company’s executive board were also senior government officials of the dictatorship, including a Minister of Foreign Relations. Influence peddling allowed Frederick W. Botts, the American co-director of the company to obtain detailed information on the terms of the public bid from the U.S. architect supervising the project for the IDB; this allowed Field to prepare for the competition. But when the public bid opened, Field owed money to the state and was too undercapitalized to participate on its own. Botts contacted Rodman Rockefeller, Nelson’s eldest son and the head of IBECASA, the Rockefellers’ construction company (part of the Rockefeller conglomerate International Basic Economy Corporation, IBEC), to partner with Field. IBEC was the Rockefeller’s business corporation to stimulate private “benevolent” capitalism in developing countries, including housing construction and financing. CGB represented an interesting opening. As Rodman Rockefeller put it in a letter to IBEC’s executive committee, “This is the opportunity we have waited for, and we wish to seize it.” And they seized it: IBEC expected to make a net profit of one million dollars in the construction of CGB.
Even when technocratic elites and politically conservative urban experts attempted to depoliticize housing, politics and social mobilization nevertheless found a way into the new homes. The construction of CGB got underway in a time of increasing political radicalization in Argentina, forcing the dictatorship to allow free elections and legalize the Peronist party, which had been banned since the coup that ousted Perón in 1955. Less than a month before the end of the military regime in 1973, with CGB nearing completion, Peronist left activists organized a squatting campaign in the soon-to-be-occupied homes. Army soldiers and CMV officials arrived to kick out the occupiers. The actions were a direct attack on the technocratic ethos of the bureaucratic-authoritarian regime: the always-insufficient stock of homes would make available units subject to political disputes, negotiations, and clientelism.
The history of affordable housing in Argentina shows how discourses of modernization and development reinforced the aspirations for modern life and citizenship connected with homeownership. Notions of the need for personal sacrifice and financial discipline coexisted with the idea that access to a shelter was a right that the state must fulfill. The attempt to seize CGB and, later on, apartments in Villa Lugano I-II, can be seen as forms of what Edward Murphy defined as insurgent ownership. Radical politics were not separated from popular demands for better, more modern homes. Rather, they demonstrate the contested nature of both the rule of experts and development itself. In this way, during the Cold War period, development, both as a language and as a practice, was part of the popular imaginary that fueled the intense conflicts of the day, entailing notions of economic growth and social improvement, as well as social and political inclusion. Here, the hegemony of transnational experts helped create a set of expectations and desires about urban life that was appropriated by different social sectors, including the urban poor. The languages and practices of development were constantly redefined, opening up the possibilities of contestation and alternative forms of rule and counter-rule. While technocratic notions of development shaped urban policies and thinking in the Cold War Americas, they also contributed to inflaming the Cold War and making an already volatile situation even more explosive.
 Rodman Rockefeller to the Executive Committee, October 24, 1968, Folder entitled IBECASA SA: Argentina – Planning – Expansion – FIELD Argentina, Reel 123, International Basic Economy Corporation Archives, 1945-1977 (IBEC), RAC.
Leandro Benmergui is an Assistant Professor of History and Director of Casa Purchase, An Outreach Center for Latin American Studies at Purchase College, SUNY. He is currently working on his book manuscript, a transnational and comparative history of developmentalism, urban renewal, and affordable housing in Cold-War Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, 1960s-1970s.