Friday, January 14, 2005

In Buenos Aires, the Crisis Fades from Sight but not from People’s Minds

Buenos Aires, Argentina

In the Plaza de Mayo, just opposite the Presidential Palace, vendors watch their Argentine flags, pins and mate cups from a distance, resting against the iron police barricades that have become permanent fixtures in the park. Tourists photograph from strange angles to avoid political graffiti. The clanging of pots and pans and the chorus of thousands chanting “Que se vayan todos” (They all [the government] must go), heard throughout the “the week of the five presidents”, have subsided. The banks have replaced their broken windows and ATMs, and the cover story of a major newspaper assures readers that a new strategy for repaying foreign debt will soon “restore normality”.

“You can´t see the crisis the way you could two years ago,” comments Paula, owner of Hostal Don Sancho, recalling what Buenos Aires was like in 2002. “There was no money. There were only vouchers- little pieces of paper printed by provincial governments that said ‘this bill is worth so many pesos’. The biggest denomination they came in was 20 pesos and they had expiration dates. In the absence of currency, people bartered for most goods and services- including people who until then had been members of the middle class, a class that has all but disappeared…Those who could afford to left the country. Lines of people, most of them younger than 40 years old, stretched for blocks from the Spanish and Italian embassies…supermarkets stocked their shelves with generic brands of everything, and restaurants reduced the size of all their portions – without reducing the price…Repairmen came out of the woodwork to fix T.V.´s, shoes, appliances – all the things that people had grown accustomed to throwing away and replacing with new ones…international travel (for all but the wealthiest) was unheard of…”

For those of us born long after the Great Depression, it is difficult, if not impossible to comprehend the loss that Argentines have experienced. My friend Hugo explained, “I had 10,000 pesos – an amount equal to US$10,000- in savings. When the peso was devalued, I had $3,000.” To give an idea what such a change might mean for a young person in the United States: imagine you live in Olympia, Washington, and pay around US$300 per month for rent. If what happened to the peso happened to the dollar, the $300 you’d put aside for rent would suddenly be worth less than $100. To put it another way, it would be equivalent to your landlord raising your rent from $300 to $900. Not only that, your landlord would probably do what many Argentine landlords did to cover their own losses – raise the rent.

Needless to say, a country needs more than three years to recooperate from a crisis of this magnitude. The relative calm I encountered this afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo signified neither recovery nor the end of resistance to “el modelo” – the neoliberal model based on “free trade” and privatization, but the beginning of a new phase of resistance. The Plaza was empty because the piqueteros (protesters, activists) are now busy working on long term projects, like starting schools and cooperative factories. The resistance is not dwindling; it is taking new form. Though the words “Sovereignty or IMF”, scrawled across one city wall, are fading, Argentines desire for a new economic system based on social justice and sustainability is not.

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