Buenos Aires central square becomes nighttime soup kitchen as poverty hits 40%

FILE PHOTO: Unemployed and informal workers protest to demand more subsidies from the national government, in Buenos Aires

By Miguel Lo Bianco

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentina's historic Plaza de Mayo square in the center of Buenos Aires, where crowds often gather to celebrate or protest, has become the scene for a regular silent nighttime vigil: growing numbers of people in poverty looking for a hot meal.

The South American country is battling annual inflation of 124%, which has pushed poverty levels over 40% and is raising the chance that voters deliver a shock to the political elite by backing a radical outsider in general elections next month.

Standing in a long line for food in the central square that is flanked by the Casa Rosada presidential palace, Erica Maya, 45, told Reuters she could earn just 3,000-4,000 pesos working all day collecting cardboard, worth $4 at real exchange rates.

"What do you do with that? Nothing," the widow with six children said. "It's better and easier to come here, you eat better. You leave with a full belly and happy."

Argentina - battling a looming recession and dwindling reserves of foreign currency - saw poverty hit 40.1% in the first half of 2023, or nearly 12 million people, official data on Wednesday showed. That is up from just over 39% at the end of last year.

The crisis has hammered the center-left Peronist government and its presidential candidate, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, while anti-establishment right-wing candidate Javier Milei is flying high in the polls. Conservative Patricia Bullrich makes up the trio of frontrunners ahead of the Oct. 22 vote.

"We estimate the level of poverty in Argentina at 40% of the population," said Eduardo Donza, from the Social Debt Observatory of the Catholic University.

"State policies are needed that are consensual and that aim at production and increased work," Donza added. "Otherwise it is almost impossible for us to get out of this situation."

Many Argentines have taken on informal jobs to complement their low income as they scrape by day-to-day.

"I have resorted to selling tortillas to find a way for my family and my daughter to survive," said Diego Ortiz, 30, as he cooked flour tortillas over hot coals in a Buenos Aires suburb.

"I do this to feed my family and it is a measure I took because it is difficult to get a job right now."

(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Writing by Nicolas Misculin; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)