Argentina’s Crisis; The Losses and Gains of my Generation
My country keeps making headlines about its economic and political decline. What’s an insider gotta say?
( Read the rest of this piece published in Al Jazeera English)
I was a teenager growing up in Argentina when the 2002 crisis punctuated by 41 percent inflation caused millions to be pushed into poverty. Argentina’s economic decline during 1997–2002 was so steep that the United Nations’ United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) named it the lost half-decade. My own generation has been living amongst this “decline,” most of my high school friends and classmates from the University of Buenos Aires have stayed in the country. They spent their twenties and current thirties in a climate of inflation. What were their decade losses? How did we adapt, grow up, and what have we gained?
Buenos Aires-Image captured by Manuel Cuaranta, “Sr. can I please get 100 grams of precio cuidado ham? ( This happened in the bodega around the corner from my house. I heard it, and got a picture of the lady.)
This month, president Cristina Kirchner presented a plan to combat inflation, asking the Argentine people to look out for and control the 500 products in supermarkets with fixed prices. The program called “Precios Cuidados” (“looked out for”- prices) has a website, magazine, and recently released an app which, according to its Facebook page, already received 59,000 downloads. Precios Cuidados is an agreement between the national government and supermarket businesses to secure fixed prices, despite the peso’s instability.
One of the factors that hit Cristina Kirchner’s government and image the hardest is how inflation reflects daily in the high costs of products. The New York Times announced this month how the peso plunged 15 percent on Jan. 22 and 23, from around 6.9 pesos to the dollar to 8 pesos, according to Bloomberg News – and it has weakened by a total of 19 percent in January. On her Facebook page, President Kirchner defended the government campaign with a message suggesting that Argentines help implement the fixed prices agreement. Her message was directed not just to followers, but to the nation as a whole:
“Being united does not mean agreeing with everything, being united does not mean having any differences, but nobody can say that we like to be robbed, after all it took us to get here,” affirmed the president in a post. The last remark after all it took us to get here refers to the years of military dictatorship and dirty war of the 1970s and early eighties when there was no democracy. My mother’s generation, for example, lost 30,000 people to the last “dirty war” and military cues. I grew up in Buenos Aires stumbling into images of missing people in newspapers, black and white photographs of students or activists that would have been my mother’s age today, but had disappeared. This is why many of those living in Argentina are careful when labeling a populist styled government “dictatorship” given that our parents experienced those already, and they are not the same thing.
On Twitter, Argentine people shared their experiences with the Ok Prices app and with the campaign. Opinions varied, but gasolero remarks and Argentine sarcasm remain.
“The app to control prices was downloaded to 5 thousand iPhones. You really have an iPhone and go around controlling prices?”
“How easy for Japan, Germany, and United States to become rich. It’s clear they don’t have a “yerba” Amanda product which doesn’t respect the fixed prices agreement.”
“Poor Steve Jobs, who dies without getting to know the “Precios Cuidados” app for Android.”
“In line at the supermarket someone just bought brie cheese and Pringles. I bought tomato sauce from the “Precios Cuidados” list.”
Another common Argentine measure is the popular protests organized by people and neighbors. This month, thousands of Argentines participated in the Apagón de Consumo, a protest against the unmeasured rise in prices where people were asked not to consume or buy in the supermarket for a full day. On Twitter, images of empty aisles in different supermarkets around the country were posted by those who adhered to the protest. Yet, the question remains, as Argentine economist Mercedes D’ Allessandro asked, “is this the cure for the disease?”
“This plan considers inflation as an independent phenomena isolated from the other symptoms. It allows people to think that the sole cause of inflation is the power that supermarket businesses have over prices. This idea is difficult to sustain” writes D’Allessandro.
Recently, Telam News Agency published an opinion article by Argentine economist Artemio Lopez who argued that, despite opposition’s negative opinions and predictions about the program’s failure, this program has been implemented effectively in the past with president Perón. The tension between government’s temporary solutions, and the prices that go up was captured well in this image by artist Minaverry.
A “Gasolero” Lifestyle
In 1998, as inflation was going up, Argentine producer Adrian Suar created a TV series called Gasoleros. The gasolero is a car that runs on Diesel fuel, spending less money to cover miles. It also stands for those who must live and adapt to the Argentine economy on a daily basis.
The TV show had off-the-charts ratings, and told the story of the Panigasis, an empovrished middle class family who owned an auto-repair shop and survived as gasoleros in Buenos Aires. Many of the classmates and friends I went to high school with used the word gasoleros a lot, and could identify with the song by Argentine musician Vicentico:
Gasoleros, no hay dinero, almas solas vagando por la ciudad
No me dejes solo gasolero, aunque me falte el dinero, tengo un sueño que llevar…
(“Gasoleros” there is no money, lonely souls lost around the city/ Don’t leave me alone “gasolero” that even when there is no money, I still have a dream to carry…)
All through their twenties, many of my friends and high school classmates have remained in gasolero mode, juggling their salaries in pesos with the inflated prices that prevent social mobility. As the peso devalues, saving alternatives such as buying dollars are not commonly accessible routes for those making average salaries in pesos. Gabriel Ortiz, a 29-year-old free- lance designer from Buenos Aires, explained to me,
“Currently, the government authorizes people with a monthly income of around eight thousand pesos to buy dollars. This is not illogical given that exchange rates are so high. But someone who doesn’t have that salary does not have the option to exchange. A salary of that amount is not very common, so this measurement is mostly benefiting those with higher incomes. Those who make less and want to save in a currency that is not the peso cannot access the exchange.”
Diana D. – a 28-year-old visual artist from Buenos Aires – mentioned how, “some people here buy dollars to save, but most of my friends and I can’t save because we live on a day-to-day basis. I think it reflects on a generation that cannot grow or save. For example, I made some money from a translation job this month, and I feel like it’s better to spend the money than to save it because you never know how much the peso will be worth in the long run.”
Parks and Recreation
It is the summer of 2014, one of the hottest in 53 years, and less than half of the Argentine population can afford to take a vacation anywhere around the country. The study conducted by a National TNS Gallup revealed how public opinion agrees there is no extra money to go anywhere.
I grew up with a sister who is ten years older and was in her twenties when Carlos Menem was president in the nineties. The convertibility of the dollar and the peso was still one to one. I watched her grow up being able to save, find a job that allowed her to travel and move out, pay her own bills and enjoy some economic independence that, I assumed, I would also enjoy in the future. But Menem’s neoliberal approaches were temporary fixes that could not solve the external debt problem, and hyperinflation was right around the corner. While I saw how the ’90s generation got to travel to Europe or around the country when they where in college, my generation makes use of terraces, public parks, and water fountains to beat the heat.
The following image has been circulating through social media. Two young men who decided to call their flooded patio in the neighborhood of Lanus, “Lanus Beach” explains how well some have managed to improvise, remaining sarcastic and critical at the same time.
Most of all, it seems important to remain creative. Cultural outlets such as books have been a luxury for years because few have the purchasing power to buy imported literature. In response to the economic collapse, the Eloisa Cartonera publishing house asked several of Latin America’s most important writers to waive the copyright on some of their books. Their idea was to print books with material bought from cartoneros-“cardboard people.” Cartoneros are people who walk the streets collecting scraps of cardboard and paper from the garbage bins to sell. Many other Argentine editorial houses that got hit by the crisis followed EC’s example of social experimentation, improvisation, and cooperation.
Argentine journalist Santiago García Navarro explained how, after the crisis, “factories started up again, run by shop-floor workers; a barter system evolved, in which millions of people participated; unemployed members of the middle classes and others began to create their own forms of self-government; street artists formed themselves into collectives.”
Belen Ianuzzi, 35, a Literature teacher who graduated from the University of Buenos Aires, tweets about her daily experience with inflation:
Dollar for beginners: even if you don’t have any, it affects you that the value of your currency, the peso, is unappreciated
Through e-mail, Ianuzzi told me how she adapts daily to inflation’s uncertainty, “I can say that, for example, when bottled water goes up, I buy another brand. Or I started buying naturally produced vegetables that are not generic, and snack and yerba products in small work cooperatives, because I think it’s a good time to stimulate small, or community economies.” Belen, like most of my classmates from Argentina, went to college for free thanks to the country’s public education system. “I don’t want a house or jewelry” she says, but also acknowledges “there are many who don’t have access to education, healthcare, or jobs. People in Buenos Aires tend to think that Argentina is Buenos Aires. But the reality is that in the smaller towns there is a lot of poverty and kids do not finish middle school. Sarmiento already warned us that ‘the problem of Argentina is its extension.'”