May 19, 2020
by Camille Laurent, current coodinator of the Southern Cone office of the Institut des Amériques (hosted by the CFA–UBA), doctoral student in geography at the University of Paris 1 (PRODIG).
"Information for parents and students of first and second level of the Piruaj school 380 and Cabeza del Toro school 344, prepare your homework, it will be retrieved today in the afternoon".
That's the message broadcasted on the Monseñor Gottau  radio of the San José de las Petacas Parish on Thursday April 30 during the 8am rounds that followed the press news. In the province of Santiago del Estero, the radio programs are still essential social connections, especially in these pandemic times, the Argentinian government having declared the country's confinement since March 20.
The San José de Boquerón district is at 280 km from the Santiago del Estero capital of the same-named province, and at 1 300 km from Buenos Aires. The provincial border closings and the traffic ban between provincial cities from March 20 to May 8 increased its isolation. Production continued (extensive ranching, wood manufacturing to make coal and posts), but the producers worry whether their buyers will be able to come, as usual, all the way to their villages. Furthermore, the small fruit and vegetable trucks that came to their villages from the neighboring province of Tucuman, and enabled families to have fresh produce, are no longer coming.
In this situation, "we realize that having access to internet, and being able to use it, has become a major issue", says Lucrecia Gil Villanueva, project manager of the "Frente de mujeres del Salado Norte" Group . The Boquerón district has never been connected to the phone network. Lorenzo Langbenh, researcher at the Federal University of Santiago del Estero, who lived for one year at Boquerón to do his research, says that there is a relay antenna in the area. "Its owner then installs a router in his client's house with a small antenna. Each client pays around 8 American dollars per month". Further in, in other words in the villages situated several kilometers from provincial route 4 that leads to and stops at Boquerón, "you have to install a 12 m high antenna to get a signal. It's of course more expensive, but sometimes those who have one of these antennas then sell the connection to their neighbors, for example in half-hour increments". Though a number of these satellite antennas have been set up in the region these past few years, their installation is still expensive and few families can afford to have their own or pay to connect to their neighbor's. So local radios play a relay role.
There are three radios in the area: the Parish one, the "Las Lomitas" station of the Peasant's Movement of Santiago del Estero and the one of the Peasant's Organization of the Copo, Alberdi and Pellegrini counties. The messages are brought, by motocycle, from the surrounding villages, or sent all over Argentina to Whatsapp numbers or Facebook radio accounts that can work thanks to the organizations' satellite antennas. You can listen to the Parish radio directly on the internet, so I am able to have some semblance of contact with my field work.
During this coronavirus period, two areas really stand out and show the connection between the internet and the radio for the communication of information at Boquerón, and more generally in the rural areas of Santiago del Estero: education and access to social services. Schools in Argentina have been closed since March 16, 2020. Luis Oscar Argañaraz is a professor at a school in Ishkay Pozo, an "interior" village and his children are educated at the school in Boquerón. He tells me that, when there is internet access, the professors hand out the work that has to be done virtually, with a Whatsapp message sent to the parents. For the schools in the interior villages, "the professors have given the parents the activity books given by the Ministry of National Education and try to collect the homework and tests to be corrected, once a week".
The Argentinian government was pretty quick at implementing confinement measures. In order to deal with the social and economic consequences, financial aid was put in place, notably a direct transfer of revenus to the most vulnerable sectors (see article on the impact of Covid-19 on Argentina's economy). It seems that the majority of the Boquerón area residents who were eligible did not have to do anything. The sum was automatically deposited. For the others, the process had to be done on-line, on specific days according to the ID card number. The radios were the ones who broadcasted the information. Then it was the individual's responsability to find a connection and, often, to ask for help from a student or a professor who had a better understanding of the technology.
Finally, in Santiago del Estero, as in all of Argentina, the resurgence of domestic violence shows how important internet is to reveal this type of problem. On April 15, the body of Priscilla Martínez, a 15 year old teenager who had been missing for 2 months, was found in the town of La Banda, the second largest city of Santiago del Estero. The young girl's family and the feminist organizations of Santiago del Estero have denounced the difficulty of following up on missing cases and cases of violence because of the compulsory isolation and the ban on protests. They used social media to publicize the disappearance and force the authorities to start the investigation. Furthermore, though gender violence data in rural zones of Santiago del Estero are rare, and are not broadcasted on the radio, calls to the free line of the ministry for women, gender and minorities have increased by 30 % nationally during the month of March and the Observatory of gender violence "Ahora que si nos ven" announced 36 femicides between March 20 and April 30 .
In confinement, the means of communication (radio, internet) prove to be essential in all aspects of family life.
Camille Laurent, current coodinator of the Southern Cone office of the Institut des Amériques (hosted by the Centro Franco Argentino–University of Buenos Aires), doctoral student in geography at the University of Paris Panthéon Sorbonne (PRODIG).