Argentina — 30 November 2013

 by

Arturo Desimone

thumbnail photo by David Berkowitz

The history of constant economic and political crises has become a cornerstone in the otherwise famously vague and fragile Argentinean identity. There is a culturally ubiquitous Argentinean confidence in the ability to withstand and adapt to financial crises, a pride which might sound disturbing when expressed to a foreigner.

From a visit to my grandparents in Buenos Aires as a child in the late 80s, I remember the Australes currency. In 1985, the highest denomination of an Australes bill was 500 Australes—four years later the treasury, as an emergency measure due to inflation, began to issue bills of 5,000 Australes as the price of basic products, like shoes or bread, soared to many-digit figures and back to one digit over the course of a few days. In 1992, there were bills issued of 10,000 and 50,000 Australes for every-day goods.

Prices at this moment are higher than in many of the European Union countries, whereas the wages are lower—this despite that Argentine salaries are now the highest ever. One Argentinean peso is 3 Mexican pesos.

The period in the early 21st century, when life was affordable in Buenos Aires and inviting to foreigners, is over. Much of the expat community, especially the young, have more or less fled the country because of the changes.

For expats, the changes have been at times particularly unpleasant—the ruling party has implemented the cambio oficial official exchange rate, meaning that the exchange rate of the dollar and euro in Argentina is usually less than in the rest of the world. There are similar levelling policies for the euro. The value of the dollar and euro on the official local market fluctuate constantly, always making it worth less than the international exchange rate, to the disadvantage of ex-pats who do not milk the popular underground parallel exchange houses who offer the shadow-economy’s ”’dollar blue” and ”euro blue.”

A poorer expat or foreigner might easily take offence believing that these economic measures are directed at the foreigners or as if the government and its supporters justify this policy by assuming that foreign expats from outside of Latin America are rich and deserve to be penalized. But these consequences for foreigners are unintended as the cambio oficial (local exchange rate) originates in the tug of war between the ruling party and the upper middle classes, the latter have always kept their savings in dollars and formed an informal economic alliance with the sojeros or powerful soy-industrialists of the Northern countryside using dollars. The considerable discomfort that cambio oficial might cause foreigners who have not managed to imitate the Argentinean strategies for getting around official rates, is not so much a direct, prejudiced attack as just characteristic of the Argentine inability to imagine the reality and needs of foreigners or to imagine why a foreigner would come to Argentina, unless he is from the much less advantaged neighboring countries like Bolivia or Paraguay.

Life in the city center seems oddly relaxed as if carrying an assumption of normalcy; people flock to the theaters and cinema, cafés and ice-cream shops on Corrientes Avenue.

If there is any proof to the idea—that was often expressed by more optimistically-willed artists in Europe in the 21st century—that historically the arts, culture, and education flourish during financial crises, when the rest of the economy is badly impacted,—it is the city of Buenos Aires, where every weekend there are around 200 theater-shows, many of which are sold-out; there are perhaps at least ten art exhibitions openings every night of the week. Corrientes, among other boulevards in the City Center, are replete with bookstores. UBA, University de Buenos Aires, is famous for its faculty of Filosofia y Letras (philosophy and literature). It was one of the universities that suffered the most disappeared students, meaning those who were abducted and murdered in the 1970s state terror. Today professors at the UBA are usually motivated by a leftist ideological persuasion and teach despite often being unpaid. Despite the absence of wages or salaries, many of the academics are able to survive by producing and selling their books. People in Buenos Aires devour books much more than in most countries. (The universities in Argentina are free of tuition. This is beginning to change with privately classes and the move towards privatization pushed by the right-wing policies of Marcismo, which means the privatization ideology of the Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires.)

Outside the city center, there is a much more obvious socio-economic misery and poverty in the provinces of Buenos Aires, with many slums, not unlike the Brazilian favelas. These are places of everyday hunger, crime and violence met with rampant police brutality and exploitation by both landlords and crime bosses.

There has been an explosion in crime as the new economic crisis unfolds. The police in the Buenos Aires provinces have a policy known as gatillo facil or ”easy trigger finger policy,” meaning that there will be few consequences for a policeman who shoots a suspect fleeing any crime. It is quite normal for young men or children in the impoverished slums to fear and hide, running, from the Bonarense police. Gatillo facil easy-trigger policies have risen under the governance of Mauricio Macri, called ”the empresario” for his projects of privatizing public spaces and creating a military-like gendarmerie in the city. He is a right-wing candidate for the upper middle class bastion of Buenos Aires against the policies of the progre Peronist establishment of Frente Para La Victoria led by president Cristina Hernandez de Kirchner, who despite her left-Peronist image and association of having supported the Montonero guerillas in the 70s, has been accused of feudal measures towards the provinces, especially those of the North were Monsanto has bought enormous stretches of land for the mass-cultivation of soybeans. There have been assassinations of indigenous leaders in the Chaco provinces who resisted the plans of the sojero land-cultivators who are the powerful and ruthless new rich of the provinces. Soybean-cultivation has been presented as the economic miracle in Argentina, a country that has traditionally made the mistake of having a foremost source of its wealth as it had with grain. The Kirchnerist public narrative about the soybean’s economic miracle has now begun to lose its monopoly as the source of Argentina’s development since the American discovery of the fracking to tap natural gas pockets that were previously unreachable.

The Argentine oligarchy supported the 70s dictatorship and its atrocities. The Sociedad Rural of landowners, were an elite that grew rich by becoming the main exporter of grain to the British Empire, which has become a source of legend and of jokes. When the country was pushed towards industrialization there began the mass-importation of immigrants from the South of Spain and Italy, Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe and Arabs from Lebanon (Latter waves of Arabs were often resettled in the desert-area of Santiago del Estero and in Tucuman in the North of the country far from Buenos Aires.).

argentine crime

Political organizations, referring to themselves as militant groups (despite the absence of rifles), such as the leftist socialist movement Marea Popular (critical and to the left of ruling Frente Para La Victoria) and the Peronist organization La Campora, operate in the poorer areas of Buenos Aires such as Constitución. Militants of the socialist left and populist labor-right do more than organize demonstrations and websites: they typically provide social services and material assistance and create neighborhood assemblies and launch demonstrations. The young militants are often to be seen on street corners at intersections, not shy of setting up their campaign tables next to the National Bank, politicking for their political representatives in local elections.

The sound of drums and megaphones of union protests and their red flags are part of daily life in Argentina—surprising and perhaps at best a reassuring sign of open debates of democracy in the wake of the post-ideological and more consumerist politics of the Menem-presidency in the 90s.

Despite the 90s having provided a short gold-rush of consumerism when the dollar and peso were 1-to-1, it led to an enormous financial crash when it turned out that this parity had been achieved by the president having sold much of the countries resources, including many industries and the railway system. Argentinean culture is rife with the superstitions imported by Southern Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants (One of the lumfardo or archaic urban slang words for ”superstitions” is ”kabbalas.”). There is a new, home-grown superstition about bad luck resulting from uttering the cursed name of Carlos Menem. They find other ways to refer to him, one of which is “The Arab from La Rioja.” Menem was imprisoned for arms trafficking shortly after his third term in office. (He sent weapons to Ecuador and Croatia violating international sanctions.)

The today near-obsolete Argentinean railway system, which had resembled that of India in its vastness and British design, uniting the many villages and provinces, no longer exists. What remains is a once-weekly train to close-by Cordoba, Rosario, and farther off Tucuman. Within the enormous terrain of the provinces, the only means of travel are highly-priced private bus lines, so villages and small cities have become lost islands isolated and estranged from one another.

Luckily, despite having usually been the most industrialized and economically developed of Latin American countries, only now lagging behind Brazil and Chile, Argentina has not yet arrived at the xenophobic European thinking of keeping out immigrants.

There is an unofficial open-borders policy in Argentina, where immigrants are free to enter and apply for a DNI or national identity card, even if they are from much poorer and stigmatized countries like Paraguay and Peru. Universal healthcare is free in Argentina; so is the high-quality public health program. This policy draws the ire and constant commentary from the right wing. Universal public education is mostly free.

Those immigrants without a DNI can face deportation, despite that the DNI document is easy to obtain unlike in the more right-wing 90s, when the xenophobia of official politics were more brutal and intense.

The right wing Macristas, meanwhile, admire Western European, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, and US right-wing attitudes towards immigrants with the same rhetoric about ”welfare mamas” and ”lazy blacks” from Paraguay and Bolivia taxing the social services. These attitudes are more often to be found in the Recoleta camp, a significant part of the upper middle class which has its own identity politics, believing the Argentinean middle class to be historically an insular culture in itself that has either produced or sustained much culture.

There are self-published scholarly works about how the middle class is a kind of ”baroque society,” with unique forms and needs, mostly pretension and invention. They are united behind the Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri. Despite having economic liberalism to thank for their social mobility they have a surprising relationship with Catholic piety. Part of the “Recoleta” lifestyle involves going to Church, political rallies in which they claim a victim-identity politics and several annual trips to the United States, visiting destinations such as Miami, Disneyworld

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