“To Feed the Nation”: Food, Hunger, and the Welfare State during the Argentine Transition to Democracy, 1983–89

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jennifer Adair, Bates College
This paper examines the flagship social program of Argentina’s “transition to democracy” (1983-1989). The PAN (Programa Alimentario Nacional), as the program was known, was an attempt to curb widespread hunger through monthly deliveries of non-perishable goods to families in need. The significance of the PAN went far beyond food distribution, however. As this paper demonstrates, the PAN illuminates three interrelated arguments about Argentina’s transition to democracy and the Latin American welfare state. First, as metaphor and as tangible reality, hunger animated a particular vision of human rights on which the transition was based. Promises to eradicate the hunger caused by the dictatorship reflected an interpretation of rights that would ensure both material sustenance and physical safety. Second, the PAN articulated complex notions of national belonging and political culture during a time after the dictatorship when those notions were up for grabs as never before. In the shantytowns that sprung up in the suburbs of Buenos Aires during the late 1970s, PAN networks organized communal purchases, disaster relief efforts, and meetings in churches and schools to facilitate food delivery. As this paper demonstrates, it was in these remade political spaces where ideas of rights and democracy were reinterpreted and enacted in ways that often went beyond and challenged the Radical Party government of Raúl Alfonsín. Finally, the food program was embedded in fierce debates about the role of the state in the midst of economic crisis throughout Latin America. As the need for food grew more acute in the midst of creeping inflation and fiscal crisis, the PAN became a visible symbol of the shortcomings of the Alfonsín government, which directly contributed to the renovation of the oppositional Peronist party, and an increasingly vocal sector linked to neoliberal economic interests that questioned the very need for an interventionist, welfare state.
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