By Gerardo Szalkowicz – February 5, 2020
Milagro Sala has been arrested since January 16, 2016, shortly after being elected Deputy to Parlasur, the parliamentary institution of the Mercosur trade bloc. What was supposed to be an interview turned into six hours of close conversation in the house where she is serving her sentence. Woman, native, social leader, political prisoner in Argentina’s province of Jujuy for over four years, Sala speaks about everything: the new Argentinean government, Latin America’s current situation, feminism, the persecution she suffers, and the works built by her organization. A radiograph of her life today.
As we arrived journalist and writer Raul Noro looked out of the balcony and his wise old face spread a parsimonious voice: “I didn’t hear the doorbell but I felt you. Come on in, it’s open.” Seconds earlier, a small group of young police officers interrupted their boredom to approach us and record in a little notebook our names and identification numbers, and where we came from. The summer sun is strong this morning in the town of Cuyaya de San Salvador but it’s a gentle, non-sticky heat. We enter into an imposing two-story house with wooden furniture and full of paintings, ornaments, diplomas, photos: the indigenous symbolism and the faces of Latin American leaders predominate on the walls. And, of course, the omnipresent image of the house owner, whom we wait for in an armchair while she finishes her bath.
We were welcomed by a comrade and Raul, who speaks to us with extreme kindness from his activism in Silo’s humanist movement to the expectations that her comrade will regain her freedom. We hear voices at the kitchen-living; there, a group of militants of the Tupac Amaru organization participate in a training course on oratory. When she appears at the foot of the stairs, everything seems to start orbiting around her. She gives some directions, jokes around a bit with Raul and says hello to us: “Hello, I’m Milagro,” as if she needed introduction… She wears shorts, vest top, and several handmade chains and bracelets. Only the black electronic ankle bracelet tied to her right leg is out of tune with her body. What follows was not in the plans: six hours in the daily life of Milagro Amalia Angela Sala, a woman, indigenous, black, social fighter. A political prisoner in Jujuy province for more than four years.
Milagro doesn’t stop for a second. She comes and goes frantically. She gives instructions all the time. She also organizes and orders via cell phone. She constantly rants against Jujuy’s political-judicial-media power because of the persecution and demonization she and her organization suffer. Today she is obsessed with making visible the works of the Tupac organization: “It’s enough about Milagro, of talking so much about me, we have to show everything that we built and that the government of (Gerardo) Morales destroyed.”
She is eager to share the video that has just been completed, which collects images of the organization’s extensive territorial work, truncated since the beginning of 2016. She asked us to share it. She complains that no one talks about it. She mentions every now and then some new prints that finally arrived in the evening. They are eleven gigantographies, one for each neighborhood built by the Tupac in different locations in the province.
There are the mock-ups of what they built: more than eight thousand homes, schools, health centers, textile factories, block factories and metallurgical plants, sports centers, swimming pools, cultural centers, and even a water park… Complete urban projects that prefigured a new institutionalism but that today are devastated land.
Why do you think they are so angry with you and the Tupac? What bothered them so much?
The organization touched on several interests of the big powers. For example, when we started building the houses, the construction companies became very angry. At first, we didn’t understand why, but then we began to see that construction generates a lot of money, so we decided that this money had to be put into the neighborhood, to build houses. We didn’t just stay criticizing. We never wanted to compete with the State, that was one of the right wing’s propaganda, they said we had a parallel government, but we only wanted to cover the needs of our comrades, the welfare of the people of Jujuy. They call us violent but they are the violent ones, they apply violence “respectfully”, without saying a bad word.
Racism, class hatred is evident too…
They were used to the fact that the pools, the best clinics, the best schools, were only for the rich, for businesspeople, for their heirs. They have never imagined that the blacks, the Colla natives, know how to think and that we could improve the quality of life of those who have less. They don’t forgive us for having opened our consciences.
In the images she shares, the young people in the pools stands out. Evidently, they were a priority. There was at least one swimming pool in every neighborhood. Perhaps a kind of revenge for her childhood memories: Milagro was abandoned as a baby in a shoe box and adopted by a wealthy middle-class family; she says that once when she went to a pool with her siblings they were allowed to enter and she was not “for being black”.
When she was 14, she found out she was adopted and left her home. That’s when her street life began, which included shining shoes, selling ice cream, but also stealing and selling substances. She was imprisoned more than once. Until a few years later when she approached the Peronist Youth by the hand of then governor Carlos Snopek, then to the ATE workers’ union. She then began a path of accelerated growth as an activist until becoming the main social leader of the province.
Today she is again deprived of her freedom, with 16 cases underway and a 13-year sentence on charges of leading an illegal association. However, the arbitrariness of the judicial corporation is now indisputable. In case another proof was missing, leaked audios from Pablo Baca, president of the Superior Court of Justice of Jujuy, were recently broadcast in which he admits without euphemism: “Milagro is in prison because that court knows that if she is out she is a risk for the Government; not because of her crimes but so that we don’t have to go back to the permanent trouble, roadblocks, burning rubber tires.” Baca was deputy to the radical party UCR when he was appointed by governor Gerardo Morales amidst a controversial extension of the tribunal. Despite this, governor Morales doubled his bet last Monday: “I don’t understand why Milagro Sala is not in a county jail.”
“I feel a lot of indignation. What the political prisoners of Jujuy are living is a tremendous act of injustice”—says Milagro with her eyes wide open—. Here, justice belongs to the radical party, there is not an independent justice system. Besides, no other person in house arrest has so many restrictions as me, with police officers at the door, in the corner, in the other corner. They tell me how many people can come in. Not even murderers get those restrictions.”
Besides fighting for your freedom, we notice that you are focusing on rebuilding the Tupac. What things, in this re-impulse, do you think you should do differently in terms of self-criticism when compared to the previous phase?
After the 1990s many of our comrades were unemployed. So the first thing was to cover their basic needs and we never had time to form cadres. That’s where we failed, in the formation of cadres. Maybe what happened to us would have caught us in a different way. That’s why my obsession today is that we train young people, we have to give them a place.
The interview was scheduled between 10:30 and 12. But it’s past four in the afternoon and we’re still there, after having lunch in a long table with Tupac activists, Milagro’s extended family that is permanently in the house and never abandons her. We haven’t been able to do the formal interview yet. “People from the capital city are always in a hurry,” she answers to the persistence. By the end of the afternoon she says the magical words “OK let’s do the article.” And there’s one last moment for the hand-to-hand exchange.
What is your reading of the current situation in Latin America? To what do you attribute the recomposition of the right wing in the region?
I think that in these last 10, 15 years the United States has been losing in economic terms to Europe and China, and they have sort of neglected Latin America. And now they are betting everything to take possession of our wealth, they are coming to get the oil, the lithium, the minerals. That is why they are targeting Venezuela so much. How long have they wanted to enter Venezuela and the organized people won’t let them? They are now meddling in Bolivia. Unfortunately, the U.S. made a lot of progress in Latin America and it means more looting, more poverty. But there is also plenty of resistance from the organized people, such as in Chile where people have reacted after 30 years. The only way to stop neoliberalism is resisting in the streets. We have no other choice.
And in particular, how did you experience the coup d’état in Bolivia, and what followed, being so close not only geographically?
In great pain. There is nothing more than a bridge between Bolivia and Jujuy. Most of Jujuy citizens are descendant from Bolivians. My grandmother was Bolivian. To have so many comrades killed just because they defend their origin is very painful. They are killed because they are indigenous, because they wear their traditional skirt, it is the visceral hatred that the right wing has as they never put up with the fact that for the first time natives have rights. I am also very saddened by what happened to Evo (Morales, ousted president of Bolivia), the brother who represents us most and who dignified all the original peoples of Latin America.
How do you evaluate the first stage of the new Argentinean Government?
Alberto (Fernandez) promised to raise the salaries of the retirees, public workers, to reactivate the economy, and I think he has been meeting his word. There is much to be done but he’s taken his first steps. What we can see is that he is working hard to build up the country. For example, the Group against Hunger is very positive. He is an excellent colleague.
And in relation to the controversy generated by his statement that there are no political prisoners in Argentina, how did that make you feel?
I respect his opinion. I’m not the one to tell him whether he’s right or wrong. He’s a lawyer, I’m just a militant. I’m not going to get into those arguments. I prefer to wait…
How do you feel regarding the growth of the women’s movement, the “feminist revolution”? What do you think of this cultural change from your place of indigenous woman?
I’m excited that women are empowering themselves. I liked very much the march of green handkerchiefs to Congress because most of them were young girls, it is very nice that they go out and fight for their rights. The Tupac Amaru was the first social organization that applied feminism. Perhaps without saying it explicitly, we empowered women, nowhere in the country were there women working in construction and in Tupac we had 70% of women working in construction, responsible for the works, the factories. We dignified them perhaps without mentioning the term feminism. The same with equal marriage, we gave many houses to same-sex couples while the Housing Institute denied them.
Anything else that you would like to add?
We want a fair country, that the judges have independence, that justice is done for Santiago Maldonado, for Rafael Nahuel, for the Mapuche brothers who are continually being subjugated by the Gendarmerie (police force) and by the big businessmen who continue stealing our territories. And here in Jujuy the mining companies must stop taking water from the native peoples, that they return the lands they stole from them thanks to the complicity of the judges and prosecutors.
Among her many calls, Milagro mentioned some logistical issues and insisted that people should “get all the flags they have.” She then explained that the idea is to have the Tupac flags on hand in every house, and she smiles: “We are getting ready to go out.”