At the entrance to Alto Comedero is a sign that reads “Bienvenida al Cantri”. That “cantri” is a phonetic misspelling of “country”, but the joke is no worse for it. “Welcome to the Country Club.” Driving in, you’ll encounter a vast swimming pool, a Jurassic-themed playground and a replica of the Incan temple of Tiwanaku. These extravagant amenities nestle among row upon row of singlestorey houses. From a distance the terraces resemble a piece of working-class Liverpool, except here, in northwest Argentina, what appear to be chimneys are rainwater tanks branded with the face of Che Guevara. This is not really a country club; this is social housing—social housing as you’ve never seen it.
Alto Comedero is the largest of the communities built by a social movement called Tupac Amaru. Based in the city of San Salvador de Jujuy, where Argentina approaches the border of Bolivia, Tupac Amaru claims to represent the neediest in society, providing housing, education, medical care or whatever else they require—it might be a meal or a pair of shoes. As well as its own housing system, it has its own factories, schools and hospitals—a degree of self-sufficiency that has led some to conclude that Tupac Amaru is effectively a state within a state. It has more than 70,000 members—or followers, depending on how one defines them—made up mostly of indigenous Kolla Indians. A revolutionary movement with quasi-socialist ideals, Tupac Amaru is known for its radical politics and for the efficacy of its direct action—when the movement decides to demonstrate, it can paralyse the streets of Jujuy, a fact that has turned many of the local middle class against them.
“Be careful of these people. They’re dangerous,” said the taxi driver as he dropped me off at the Tupac Amaru headquarters in Jujuy. Such are the rumours that circulate around this movement. Some of the animosity stems from its leader, a diminutive Kolla woman named Milagro Sala, who has a reputation as both saint (Milagro means “miracle” in Spanish) and sinner. It is difficult to understand the particular urbanism that Tupac Amaru has created—that combination of exurbia, Disneyesque theme park and radical socialism—without understanding something of Milagro Sala. The Milagro legend holds that as a baby she was abandoned in a box outside a hospital. She ran away from her adoptive home at 14 to become a street hawker, but fell into petty crime and eventually wound up in prison. There, she emerged as a natural leader, organising a hunger strike over the quality of the food and helping to teach inmates to read. Having risen up through the Peronist Youth Movement and the unions, her subsequent political image is part revolutionary leader and part Mother Theresa. And yet local scuttlebutt insinuates she’d been a prostitute and a drug addict. The rightwing media has portrayed her as presiding over a mob, while some—like that taxi driver no doubt—see it more as a cult.
Despite her unpromising beginnings, Milagro is one of the most powerful women in Argentina. In her headquarters there are pictures of her with the Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, whom she calls “comrade Evo”. Perhaps, rather than an extraordinary anomaly, she is best understood in the context of a new breed of socialist-style South American leader wielding genuine grass-roots power. Morales and Hugo Chavez, together with first Lula and then Rousseff in Brazil, and the late Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, have brought a socialist dynamic back into the mainstream of the continent’s politics.
“We are and we aren’t a revolutionary organisation,” Milagro told me. “We are not revolutionary in the sense that we don’t carry weapons and we don’t believe in violence—we understand the value of human life. But we are revolutionaries in that we understand that we can change how people think. Through dignified work and a change of consciousness, people can become better.” Tupac Amaru has built thousands of houses for the poorest people in this region. It began with a mere 148, when Milagro took a punt that even she, with no construction experience, could make better use of government housing subsidies than the corrupt local politicians. Today she controls government funding worth 1,000 houses per year. But her real genius is in how she spends that money. Tupac Amaru created its own brick and steelwork factories, making the construction process that much more efficient. Receiving 93,000 pesos (23,000 dollars) per house—a third less than volume housing companies—it builds those houses four times faster than the private sector. One reason is that it employs the poor as a labour force, which must make this one of the few schemes in the world where you can be paid to build your own house—and then be given it for free.
There are 2,700 houses in Alto Comedero, home to 7,000 people. The buildings themselves are unremarkable. This is a standard-issue pitched-roof design handed out by the ministry of housing. Each single-storey unit consists of 50 square metres with two bedrooms, a garden in front and a small courtyard out back. There were no architects involved here—the local architects’ association demanded too hefty a fee. But what makes Alto Comedero truly unique is not the architecture so much as the luxurious amenities and the surreal place-making. Everywhere you look, Tupac Amaru’s revolutionary cosmology has been turned into a didactic branding concept. Each of the houses is stamped with a face. It might be Tupac Amaru himself, the 18th-century Incan leader who rebelled against the Spanish, after whom the movement takes its name; or Eva (“Evita”) Peron, that talismanic Argentine heroine; or Che Guevara, the socialist revolutionary (Che’s face is also written large on the walls of the community factories). This is the holy trinity of the organisation’s iconography—a blend of T-shirt radicalism, Argentine populism, and local ethnic folklore.
The theme-park urbanism of Alto Comedero is equally sui generis. What Tupac Amaru saves by creating its own factories and by cutting out all the middlemen—the developers, construction companies and architects—it can reinvest into the community as grand social gestures. It was news of the swimming pools that first brought me to Jujuy—the idea that with a simple gesture you could make the poor feel rich. And yet I’d expected some standard rectangular affair, not the amoeboid aquatic park that awaited me in Alto Comedero, with its giant penguin figures and walruses. Seeing the glee with which a boy dive-bombed that water was enough to validate the entire concept.
And it’s not just the pool: I passed a basketball court, a football pitch and—almost bizarrely, considering it is the sport of the middle class —a rugby pitch. But these were only too prosaic compared to the sight of the Jurassic theme park. In this vast playground roamed by dinosaurs, children shrieked as they spilled down slides attached to woolly mammoths and triceratops. Granted, the production values aren’t quite Industrial Light & Magic—these creatures are handmade by craftsmen in the local steelwork factory—but the effect is no less surprising. Teenagers, meanwhile, hung out under palm-frond pavilions fitted with barbecue grills. What kind of childhood heaven was this? That sign at the entrance was ironic and utopian at the same time: Welcome to the Country Club.
Yet that leisure-zone concept is not sufficient. The strangest feature of Alto Comedero is the replica of the ancient temple at Tiwanaku in Bolivia. This sacred Incan site has been reconstructed out of breezeblocks, like something on a Hollywood set. Ersatz, yes, but authentic enough to attract Mapuche Indians from Patagonia, who come here to celebrate Inti Raymi, the Incan festival of the sun. Milagro had pointed out to me that one of the differences between Tupac Amaru and a Marxist movement was its spiritual dimension. She is not religious, but she understands that keeping alive Kolla traditions is one way of bonding a community together.
Set aside the economic efficiency at work here and there is an innocence to all of this. Alto Comedero personifies a kind of Christmas-list urbanism, perhaps even a naïve whimsy that rules nothing off the menu: a theme park, a temple—why not? It is hard to over-estimate what a far cry Alto Comedero is from the shanty-style settlements around it, where people have built their own homes with whatever they could muster. Ordinarily, the only way people can acquire a house of the quality of those in Alto Comedero is on a state programme. But you need to prove that you earn 2,500 pesos (600 dollars) a month to get yourself on a waiting list that may be eight years long, and precedes the coughing up of a 12,000-peso (2,900-dollar) down payment. In other words, the genuinely poor can’t even reach the first rung of that ladder. In contrast with nearby villa miserias, Alto Comedero has the sense of exclusivity of a gated community—without the gate.
Social housing is ordinarily a matter of achieving the minimum, of ruling out the inessential so that state expenditure can be minimised or private profits maximised. But how do you define “essential”? A swimming pool is an inexpensive way of giving the poor a taste of civic pride, of creating a community that can bond through leisure and not merely through agglomeration. Milagro would scarcely phrase it in such terms, but Alto Comedero is a giant middle digit held up at the politicians and the private house builders. But perhaps most importantly, what Alto Comedero represents is a zone of exception. With centralised social housing out of political fashion all over the world, it is increasingly rare to find a form of place-making that is not in thrall to a market that depends on privatised services, rising property values and speculation. What may be Tupac Amaru’s most remarkable achievement is in carving out a few squares of independent territory on the capitalist gameboard.