Entrevista a Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen: "Many of the spaces we believe to be public are privately owned"


Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen, renowned across the globe for her work on global cities, discusses the modern metropolis, empty buildings and whether Latin American states are too weak to resist urban takeovers by the private sector.

por Federico Poore
Buenos Aires Times, 29-09-2018

Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen is one the most respected voices in the field of urban studies. She became increasingly well-known in the early 1990s after the publication of her hugely influential book The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (1991). At a time when analysts (such as the recently deceased Paul Virilio) were warning about the abandonment of large cities, Sassen argued the contrary, positing that a city’s economic function at an international level was one of its defining factors — and that these global cities would become increasingly important in the years to come.

Over the last few years, and especially since the publication of Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014, version in Spanish published by Katz Editores), she has focused on studying the social consequences of the global economy, including the displacement of villages and the growing inequalities that accompany these processes.

In this interview with the Times, hours after her recent keynote speech at the 2nd International Congress of Urbanism and Mobility, Sassen analysed some of the main challenges faced today by cities such as Buenos Aires, London and New York.

In your keynote address at la Usina del Arte you mentioned a project of yours, called the “Ethics of the City,” which aims to serve people and not the economy. Why do you say the diversity of urban life is at risk?

This is strongly related to a change I pointed out in The Global City. In the 1970s, big cities were impoverished and the middle classes were moving out. At the same time, corporations did not feel the need to be downtown, since they had most of the necessary resources inside the company. The city was an abandoned space.

The best example was New York: all kind of experts were saying: ‘The city is finished.’ But I like watching from the edges of the system and I started to see that something else was happening. Doing work on immigration I happened to meet the cleaners of the offices of Wall Street, which back then were all Dominicans and worked in those huge buildings owned by insurance companies. When the rest of the employees left — because back in the days Wall Street was not ‘open’ 24-hours — and the building looked empty, the cleaners would say to me “Let’s have lunch.’ They said ‘Lunch’ even though it was midnight (smiles). And they showed me the interior of one of those big buildings, which were the offices of big firms such as Goldman Sachs.

It was then that I realised that there were people from so many nationalities working there, and I learned a lot about globalisation. Several companies had left the city, but in the 1980s – with the beginning of privatisation and deregulation – any firm with the intention of working in seven or 20 countries began to realise that it would need law experts, investment experts… and that’s what these companies began to scout everywhere where they had operations, be it Paris, Tokyo or Frankfurt. We’re talking about well-educated, very smart people. This is a key economic factor that ‘revalued’ the cities.

And why is that?

Lots of experts were saying ‘In a digital world, the physical won’t matter.” But I would contradict them and tell them: ‘At the moment you need expertise on the business preferences of Mongolians or on Argentine laws on how to make business with the agricultural sector, you’ll need the city again.’ And what happens, in terms of urbanism, is that in the same big houses where three modest families would live, you now have these brilliant young people. This sector is launching a huge takeover of a large portion of these cities which has expelled entire groups of people that until not long ago could live in the city but are now forced to live in the outskirts. They even kicked out the firemen!

In Die Hard, the movie starring Bruce Willis, the owners of the big office towers were the Japanese. Who are the ones leading the urban takeover of the historic centres today?

That would be the Chinese. They’re very international: investors and developers at the same time, they started a freight train from Beijing to London… they have they own way of doing it.

It is widely assumed that the classic way of expelling certain groups from cities is through affluent families arriving in a certain neighbourhood, which pushes up rent prices so much that original residents are forced to move elsewhere. But you are saying that the trend now is big companies buying offices, just to own them. Is this an invisible phenomenon?

The key lies in mathematical algorithms. This is not like macroeconomics: we’re talking about a whole new level of intelligence, different to how it worked until the 1980s when it was more about routine intelligence, the ability to see little things that could be changed.

Now the building you see is no longer the result of some kind of economic process, but the effect of an invisible economic system. We’re still trying to understand this model, a model so extractive that I feel inclined to call it antieconomic — because calling it an ‘economic’ phenomenon would not help us understanding it. It’s the logic of extraction, like in the case of mining or plantations. But those models are visible. These are not.

What does this mean for cities in the immediate future?

Cities have gone through several epochs. There were times when they grew and became powerful, and then went through other times when they lost that power. No stage lasts forever. At this point what I’m seeing is a phenomenal grabbing process that will find its own limits, too. This “empty buildings” phenomenon is new, they are buying the buildings in order to own the land. It’s not the building itself what matters! There’s something very abstract at stake. The key question here is: what’s next?

They may have done New York, they may have done London but there are many other cities. It’s happening in Milan, too. Until now there are very few buildings involved. But who knows…

What should be the role of those working in urban studies today?

There are two ways, two levels of involvement. You can take the case of London: plans are very good, urban planners are always working to take care of public space, I think it’s impressive. The same cannot be said of New York, where there are no resources and no culture of protecting the public.

What about Latin America?

It depends. There are countries like Chile, for instance, that nowadays feel proud of looking like North America. But I would say there are two ways to beautify a city: one of this one, with fancy buildings that only exist in a world of wealth. The other is to focus on public spaces, public transport… though we know that many of the spaces we believe to be public are actually privately owned.

Such as office parks.

Exactly, it’s part of an arrangement where private owners always win: ‘I build this tower but in exchange I get all these area of public space.’ Did you know that all the streets in Potsdamer Platz [in Berlin] are privately-owned? These are new forms.

Aren’t Latin American states too weak to resist these urban takeovers?

Yes, especially because until now we’re talking about a very specific phenomenon, involving just a few large buildings. It’s a new trend. Most analysts, be they from the government or from the private sector, don’t seem to be aware of these new forms, the same way they never understood that subprime mortgages were not an instrument that would help modest families to own a home. This is a very profound yet invisible change. You see a little house. But what’s actually happening is that millions of little houses are working, at a very abstract level, as security-backed assets.

Do you believe there’s such a thing as gentrification in Latin America?

I don’t have data for all the big cities in Latin America, but I can name a process that’s really taking place in those cities — financialisation [NB: according to Sassen, this is a mechanism that replaces “the prospect of democratic decision-making by an expansion of opaque transnational networks”].

Wherever I give these lectures, I see one or two people who always come to tell me that this is also taking place in their cities.

Almost 40 percent of Argentina’s population is living in Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area. Would you say that the fact that it has now established itself as a global city, interconnected with other urban markets, further complicates plans to decentralise the country?

As a matter of fact, that’s what’s happening with so many large cities: they grow on and on, erecting tall buildings and developing a new luxury economy in order to fulfil business demand and everything that the new rich ‘need.’ The irony is that these new phase is launched at a time when the big cities — New York, Paris, London, probably Buenos Aires — have become poorer, because several big economic actors have moved away from them.

Even though your time in Buenos Aires has been very short, what was your impression of the city? You haven’t been here for some years.

I lived in Buenos Aires under some terrible, horrible dictatorships [Sassen came to Argentina in 1951 and spent part of her childhood and adolescence in Argentina] but now I love it. It still has some of that wonderful energy I remember it had when it was no longer under authoritarian rule. It’s a great city! Of course, like every city, it has too much inequality, too much social injustice.

Las cementeras prefieren mirar el largo plazo

por Federico Poore
Revista Noticias, 15-09-2018

Mientras las constructoras tratan de hacer control de daños por el escándalo de los cuadernos, la industria cementera se prepara para afrontar la crisis más fuerte de la década. Los números más recientes indican un fuerte desplome en la producción, pero los empresarios aseguran que el empuje de los primeros meses de 2018, sumado a las cifras récord de las cuales se partían, les permitirán llegar bien a fin de año.

De acuerdo con la Asociación de Fabricantes de Cemento Portland, entre enero y marzo las cifras de despacho de cemento batieron una marca histórica.

Pero en abril comenzó a observarse una caída que ya en mayo -con la primera corrida cambiaria- se colocaba por debajo de los valores de 2017. Los últimos números disponibles, los de julio, hablan de 952.000 toneladas, una caída interanual de 5,9% y la cifra más baja desde aquel frío 2016.

“Si bien en los últimos tres meses la industria registró una caída, hay que contemplar que tuvimos una época de muchas lluvias y esto afecta directamente a nuestra actividad”, explica Sergio Faifman, CEO de Loma Negra.

El titular de la cementera más grande del país, que el último año facturó 13.800 millones de pesos, cree que, de mantenerse el nivel de despachos en los próximos meses, la industria estaría terminando el año de manera similar a los despachos de 2017.

“Nuestra flexibilidad operativa nos permite poder superar estas variaciones con un mínimo impacto en nuestros costos y mantener una estructura fija muy eficiente”, se jacta el ejecutivo de Loma Negra, propiedad de la brasileña Camargo Corrêa.

Marcelo Ramírez, presidente de la Asociación Argentina de Carreteras, también cree que la reciente inversión en equipos y tecnología le está permitiendo a las cementeras, las constructoras y el sector de rutas en general afrontar mejor los cambios en los niveles de actividad. También destaca el estímulo adicional del Plan Vial Federal puesto en marcha por el gobierno. La asociación se dedica a la capacitación y la difusión de la actividad caminera. “Dicho esto, nuestro sector no es ajeno a la evolución de la economía”, dice Ramírez, y agrega: “En el corto plazo, la caída de la actividad económica puede traer aparejado aumento de los costos de financiación, atrasos en la cadena de pagos e inestabilidad de los precios, factores claves que impactan en forma directa en el desarrollo de una obra”.

A esto se le suman consecuencias indirectas, pero igualmente importantes, en caso de darse una prolongada falta de actividad, lo que terminará afectando la renovación de equipamiento y el desarrollo de nuevos proveedores, y hasta causar la pérdida de profesionales especializados.

Ante este riesgo, el gobierno de Mauricio Macri anunció esta semana la creación de un fideicomiso para financiar las obras licitadas bajo el esquema de participación pública-privada (PPP), una manera de compensar las dificultades que están encontrando las constructoras salpicadas por el escándalo de corrupción en la obra pública a la hora de conseguir el financiamiento para iniciar sus proyectos.

Nivel de empleo. La otra gran pregunta que trae la crisis es qué pasará con el nivel de empleo en el sector.Ramírez espera una leve caída en los niveles de actividad hasta septiembre por un menor ritmo de obras. “Entendemos que no está en discusión el nivel de inversiones planteadas en infraestructura vial en el mediano plazo: los planes viales existen y muchos proyectos se están desarrollando. Pero esto no quita que la realidad económica del país haga que se reprogramen las obras no iniciadas para adecuarlas a los fondos disponibles”, asegura.

Faifman es más optimista: dice que el año pasado Loma Negra puso en marcha una nueva línea de producción en la planta L’Amalí, en Olavarría. Con esta inversión de 350 millones de dólares, la cementera espera aumentar su capacidad de producción en un 40%, por lo que los planes son de expansión y no de ajuste.

“La puesta en marcha se espera para los primeros meses de 2020 y tenemos previstos 200 puestos de trabajo para operar esta nueva línea”, afirma.

Holcim, la cementera suiza liderada en la Argentina por Carlos Espina, había hecho lo propio en diciembre al anunciar una inversión de 120 millones de dólares para la ampliación de su planta de Malagueño, en la provincia de Córdoba.

En una reunión con Macri en Casa de Gobierno, los ejecutivos de la segunda cementera más importante del país -que en 2017 facturó más de 7.300 millones de pesos- dijeron que la medida permitiría crear 100 puestos de trabajo “directos e indirectos”.

Oligopolios bajo la lupa. Loma Negra y Holcim dominan un negocio concentrado en muy pocas manos.Detrás de ellos se ubican Cementos Avellaneda (propiedad de la española Cementos Molins, con una facturación de 5.940 millones de pesos en 2017), Petroquímica Comodoro Rivadavia (PCR, de las familias Brandi y Cavallo, con 5.730 millones) y no mucho más.

En mayo pasado, tras un fuerte aumento de precios, la Comisión Nacional de Defensa de la Competencia (CNDC), que depende del Ministerio de la Producción, abrió una investigación contra estas empresas por presunta colusión y supuesto comportamiento oligopólico.

“Lo que se abrió no es un expediente sino una investigación de mercado”, explicaron fuentes del organismo.

Si bien declinaron dar detalles, aseguraron que es posible que la pesquisa derive en una serie de recomendaciones de cambios normativos o regulatorios que alienten la competencia en el mercado cementero.

“Si se encuentran indicios de comportamientos anticompetitivos, podremos recomendar abrir una investigación contra una empresa o contra varias empresa”, advierten en la CNDC.

Desde Loma Negra aún esperan novedades. “A la fecha no hemos tenido actualizaciones respecto de las investigaciones. Nosotros estamos respondiendo en tiempo y forma todos los requerimientos de información que nos han solicitado”, concluye Faifman.

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Perfect storm casts ominous shadow over Argentina's media landscape

More than 2,400 journalists have lost their jobs since President Mauricio Macri came to power, with many more media outlets facing an uncertain future. Experts warn freedom of expression could be under threat.

por Federico Poore
Buenos Aires Times, 01-09-2018

Over the last few years, a perfect storm has resulted in the deterioration of the media landscape in Argentina. New technologies, a dramatic shift in government advertising and the weakening of anti-trust laws have produced a grim scenario, one that is affecting reporters and audiences alike.

The virtual paralysis of the state-run Télam news agency, whose journalists went on strike after the Mauricio Macri government laid off almost 40 percent of its total staff in June, added to the widespread closure of newsrooms and print publications across the country, has placed a question mark over the future of freedom of expression in the country.

“The media ecosystem is going through a crisis caused by two main factors: digitalisation, a phenomenon that is breaking established business models, and the regulatory intervention by [President] Macri, who has increased concentration of media ownership mostly by way of decree,” said Martín Becerra, a respected media expert and researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet).

The crisis goes beyond ideology. Between 2016 and 2018, dozens of media outlets closed their doors, ranging from those aligned with the previous government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (which were heavily dependent on government advertising) to others that apparently had a more private-based model, such as the news agency DyN.

The bad news keeps on coming. On Wednesday, journalists at Noticias Argentinas said the cable news agency had announced the firm had filed for a “crisis prevention procedure,” which means the company has decided to start dismissals motivated by issues of “force majeure.”
According to the Sipreba press workers’ union, more than 2,400 journalists have lost their jobs since President Macri took office in December 2015.

Becerra said that the Macri administration’s sloth in dealing with the closure of media outlets “has affected the diversity of news in the market and disciplined the editorial line of most of them, [most of] which are now pro-government.”

A GLOBAL TREND?

Adriana Amado, a media specialist and the author of Periodismos argentinos, said the problems facing Argentine media should not be separated from the global crisis affecting journalism.

“The declining trend in the number of jobs began in 2008, about the same time the worldwide trend began,” she said.

Amado was the coordinator of the Argentine chapter of the Worlds of Journalism Study, a comprehensive report that, among other things, illustrated the severe disparity of salaries among workers in the media sector that existed even before the current government took power. As of 2014, the study said, one out of three journalists in the country earned less than US$1,500 a year. Amado insists the wave of lay-offs actually started 10 years ago, in line with what happened in newsrooms in the United States and other nations.

Santiago Marino, a doctor in Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), stressed another aspect of this global trend: the social media monopoly. With Google now raking in 95 percent of all search-engine market share in Latin America, and Facebook taking increasingly bigger shares of the advertising cake, the general landscape has become an excuse for media moguls to call on media workers to adapt to the new landscape by introducing more “flexible” working conditions, he said.

However, the Argentine media market has some very specific characteristics that are shaping up into much-bigger problems, casting a shadow over freedom of expression.

“We have an extremely concentrated media market, with a high incidence of foreign capital, greatly centralised in Buenos Aires – and with private media outlets hungry for government money,” Marino described. “This explains how, once the State withdraws or reallocates government advertising cash [as happened after the ruling Cambiemos administration reached power], some media outlets are left without a solid financing model.”

As soon as his government took office, Macri signed off on a number of DNU emergency decrees that dramatically reshaped the media landscape, cutting down aspects of the 2009 Broadcast Media Law and relaxing some of the safeguards put in place by anti-trust regulations.

Some of the country’s biggest media empires benefitted from the sweeping changes – including the powerful Grupo Clarín, which continued with its expansion (two months ago, the government approved the muchcontested merger of Cablevisión, Clarín’s cable TV company, and the telecommunications giants Telecom).

Meanwhile, hundreds of journalists were being laid off from Radio del Plata (a popular radio station), the newspaper Crónica and Grupo Atlántida, one of the country’s main magazine publishers. The company that owned Radio Rivadavia and Radio Uno filed for bankruptcy.

Employees at Grupo Indalo, formerly owned by casino mogul Cristóbal López and his partner Fabián de Sousa, saw their wages paid late or in installments. The Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper, ceased to exist after 140 years of publishing, with severance cheques for its laid-off employees bouncing. The list goes on.

“The truth is probably that both local and global factors play a role – but the situation is worse because the regressive policies implemented by the Macri administration are deepening the inequality gap,” argues Becerra.

“In other countries, such as France, Canada, Germany or Uruguay, the State intervenes to mitigate the adverse effects from the worldwide crisis of the traditional media.”

THE FOCUS OF RESISTANCE

On June 26, as Argentines were preparing to watch the country’s crucial World Cup clash against Nigeria in Russia, the head of the Public Media Department Hernán Lombardi announced that 354 workers at the Télam state-run news agency were being laid off.

The government initially described the massive firings as the “necessary restructuring” of an agency that had “grown disproportionately” during the Kirchnerite era (2003-2015), suggesting that those it had selected to be laid off had been hired solely because of their political orientation. However, as soon become evident, many of those sacked were be experienced journalists and photographers that had started working at the agency long before the Kirchners had taken office.

Workers decided to take action. As soon as the controversial measure was announced, Télam employees called an indefinite strike and began a nonviolent occupation of the agencies’ two offices in the nation’s capital. No more dispatches had been published since. A visit to the agency’s website draws up a red page, with a simple alert: “Por medidas gremiales el servicio se encuentra temporalmente limitado.”

The impact of the agency’s shutdown, however, goes way beyond Buenos Aires.

“A lot of media outlets in Argentina, especially newspapers, rely on Télam to cover news from the provinces,” revealed Marino. “Now they’ve lost one of their main sources of information, because one of the great things about Télam is that it is present throughout the country.”

For Becerra, the closing down of DyN, another onceinfluential agency, and the lack of journalistic production at Télam is hurting not only smalland medium-sized publications that depended on their coverage of daily and breaking news, but also society’s right to information.

Last month, on August 22, an appeals court ordered the reinstatement of five of the sacked workers at Télam, confirming an earlier lower court ruling which stated that Lombardi’s decision had “clearly exceeded limits of reasonableness” and was at odds with work regulations.

The crisis lingers on. And for now, that red notice on the website’s homepage remains.

A FUTURE TIED TO SUBSCRIBERS?

The story of Tiempo Argentino is emblematic of the difficult times facing the media landscape in Argentina.

The newspaper was a staunch supporter of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration and days before the change of government, in late 2015, its workers stopped receiving their salaries. Owners Sergio Szpolski and Matías Garfunkel disappeared from the scene after selling their holding in the company to a man with no experience in the industry. His name is Mariano Martínez Rojas, and shortly after the sale, he stopped publishing the newspaper.

In April 2016, journalists at Tiempo Argentino decided to take a bold step: they would become a cooperative and run the paper by themselves.

Three months later, in the early hours of July 4, a mob of more than 20 people broke into its newsroom in the Buenos Aires City neighbourhood of Palermo, attacking three employees, while destroying equipment and documents. They were led by Martínez Rojas, a man whose alleged ties with judicial middlemen and the murky underworld of the intelligence services have never been denied. Even more surprisingly, the fleeing attackers were escorted and protected by the Buenos Aires City police.

Many would have walked out, but the workers stood their ground, and until this day they continue publishing Tiempo.

“It’s a very rewarding experience, but it comes with a great effort,” said Tiempo sports journalist Alejandro Wall. “This cooperative has almost 100 workers – not all journalists – who run a website and publish two magazines (a Sunday edition and a quarterly magazine).”

What was born out of a necessity to save their jobs has now turned into a fascinating challenge – putting a newspaper on the streets with a business model based on its readers. Today, seven out of 10 pesos that the cooperative makes comes from newspaper sales and subscriptions. “The goal is to keep growing along that line and [to] stop depending on advertising, both state and private,” Wall said.

Some big challenges remain. Access to newsprint paper, for instance, is becoming increasingly difficult to afford. “So far this year, Papel Prensa has raised its prices by 79 percent,” said the journalist, in reference to the company (owned by Clarín) which produces newsprint and supplies the vast majority of Argentina’s newspapers.

Wall also says that the allocation of government advertising, used heavily arbitrary during the Kirchnerite administration, is still used as a weapon, as indirect censorship under the Macri administration. “Opposition and smaller media are being discriminated against,” he argues.

Some, it seems, are beginning to follow in Tiempo Argentino’s footsteps. Since 2016, several media companies have been turned into cooperatives, including local newspapers La Nueva Mañana, in Córdoba, El Ciudadano (Rosario) and La Portada (Esquel), and news portal Infonews, based in Buenos Aires.

However, the combination of the global threat from changing business models and the government’s indifference to the disappearance of traditional news outlets is sketching out a future scenario with more noise and less voices.

As the economic crisis in the country deepens, one thing is clear: the perfect storm affecting Argentine media outlets is yet to pass.