Κυριακή, Φεβρουαρίου 12, 2012

Argentina: life after bankruptcy

HOSTESS...Le Monde diplomatique


Argentina: life after bankruptcy

The Argentine government has acknowledged that it does not have the funds to do anything about a ruling of the country’s supreme court that a 13% cut in state pensions and civil servants’ salaries was unconstitutional. The people, angry and energised, are ready to continue fighting.
by Clara Augé
THE Plaza de Mayo, in the heart of Buenos Aires, is now home to the piqueteros, a group of unemployed protesters who have spent another chilly night in tents (it is winter in the southern hemisphere). In an outlying district are more tents, belonging to the followers of San Cayetano, the patron saint of work and bread. Each year on his feast day of 7 August, the poorest of the poor pray to him for bread that nourishes and work that lends dignity.
Men and women, often with children, roam the streets of the city by night, rummaging in rubbish bins with bare hands. They use makeshift carts to carry away paper and cardboard, which they sell for 42 centavos (12 cents) a kilo. They also gather up any other items of value that might find a buyer - plastic, metal, glass. Many lost their jobs and are now eking out an existence. Since last December the effects of the financial crisis - social spending cuts, reduced incomes and the corralito (a partial freeze on bank accounts to shore up the Argentine peso) - have worsened the country’s serious social problems.
Argentina’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 13.5% between June 2001 and June 2002, with a record drop of 16.3% during the latter six months. This drastically affected employment and incomes and caused a dramatic rise in poverty. The United Nation’s economic commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac) has predicted a 13.5% drop in GDP for Argentina for the current year (1). The country has a population of 35m, of whom 19m were classified poor as of this June, with earnings of less than $190 a month; 8.4m were destitute, with monthly incomes below $83.
Young people have been showing visible malnutrition for two years and the situation has worsened in recent months in secondary and primary schools. Hungry children are fainting; absenteeism at school is down since primary school children do not want to skip the food offered at school, which is often their only meal of the day (2). Sometimes mothers appear at schools with empty plates, demanding food for sick children at home. Earlier this year this was happening only in the most impoverished province of Tucumán; now it happens nationwide, including in Buenos Aires province, where for the first time 100 schools kept their cafeterias open over the winter holidays.
In Buenos Aires people are still trying to understand what happened to their tattered country. Argentina is growing poorer by the day and its political class has lost all credibility. The decline is brutal, coming after a four-year-long recession that spared some sectors. Since last December’s popular uprising, which led to the downfall of President Fernando de la Rua, many signs now indicate that Argentina, once a great power, is in economic mourning. Daily evidence of the country’s downfall is overwhelming. So are the lines of would-be emigrants in front of the Spanish and Italian consulates. Queuing to emigrate requires patience and determination; passports have not been issued since July because the government can no longer afford printing costs.
Some people search for scrap metal, more lucrative than paper. They even steal copper cables from telephone lines or aluminium from the electronic circuitry of traffic lights. The memorial to Christopher Columbus in Buenos Aires, a stone’s throw from the presidential palace, was early to lose its bronze plaque. City officials are considering replacing bronze plaques with ceramic ones. Other traces of history have disappeared too, leaving monuments bereft. Economic crisis has put Buenos Aires’ sense of its history at risk.
In offices, the high price of printer cartridges makes them luxuries, so people refill their used cartridges, whatever the quality. Downtown pedestrian thoroughfares have become open-air markets where socks, cigarette lighters and pencils are sold from temporary stalls, quickly dismantled when the authorities appear. Stores have gone out of business and the new poor wander around cafés and restaurants, begging for spare change or food. Some establishments lock their doors and make prospective customers prove they are not vagrants before they let them in. In upmarket neighbourhoods women sit in front of supermarkets, begging for rice or mate tea.
Buenos Aires is anxious, unstable and poor. This, compounded by soaring youth violence (up 142% over the last four years according to officials in Buenos Aires province), has made the capital discouraging. Until recently it was rightfully proud of its nightlife, and its restaurants, cinemas, cafés and theatres were jammed. But foreboding has changed people’s habits. Fear, though common in neighbouring countries, is a new phenomenon in Buenos Aires, once Latin America’s safest capital.
Business is booming for firms that specialise in security systems, self-defence courses, guards, and armoured vehicles. "We’re selling water in a desert," says a spokesman for a company that installs home alarms. Wealthy Argentines are selling their large cars to avoid being conspicuous targets for criminals who abduct. Kidnappers strike in rich and poor neighbourhoods, and hold their victims to ransom, demanding anything from $240 to $4,800 for their release.
Children in the town of Quilmes, only 30 km from the capital, are reduced to eating fried toads or even rats. For those who manage to avoid that degradation, the banking freeze and increased unemployment have led to a burgeoning of swap clubs, where services and products are bartered (3). Other provinces have partially replaced Argentina’s devalued peso with local bonds, some with humourous names. The fragile currency in the northern province of Chaco is named after one of the toughest woods in the world, quebracho ("axe-breaker") (4).
Left bankrupt by their government, their bankers and the International Monetary Fund, Argentines have lost faith in their political leadership. Those from Buenos Aires province resorted to marches, blockades and demonstrations. Spurred on by the piqueteros, a large group of jobless and hungry people set up blockades in the south of the capital on 26 June. The police arrested 160 people, two piqueteroswere killed and 90 people were injured. Since 19 December, when the government declared a state of siege, 35 Argentines have been killed in street demonstrations. So far the only response to these anti-government protests has been repression.

Signs of hope

There are some signs of hope. Buenos Aires, which only a decade ago was looking forward to a glorious future, has always been a vibrant cultural centre. Some feared that the combined effects of the devalued peso, reduced purchasing power and high anxiety and uncertainty would halt cultural activities. The opposite is true. True, foreign performers are no longer paid in dollars and theatres have turned to local companies. Books from Spain or Mexico are prohibitively expensive and higher paper prices have curtailed domestic publishing. Over the last 20 months 300 Argentine bookstores closed their doors. People now visit bookstores to read the books they would have bought a year ago.
But despite the difficulties associated with the devalued peso (which lost 300% of its value against the dollar over six months), the culture makers are still demonstrating vitality, and the Argentine public supports them. Intellectuals and artists are organising to counter the feelings of loss and powerlessness. The Argentine cinema is enjoying a renaissance and theatres are offering high-quality productions. Some plays have addressed the crisis, to exorcise it or show its effects. At the magnificent Teatro Argentino de La Plata, when an actor recited a passage by the Spanish playwright, Federico García Lorca, the entire city could see itself in the author’s words: "What shall I do with this new and coming hour, so unfamiliar to me?"
A new venue on the Avenida Corrientes (the Broadway of Buenos Aires) charges no admittance: theatregoers can pay what they want. Other theatres are offering free productions and audiences are growing. Some ask audiences to donate food, toys and medicines, which go to groups to help the poor. In another positive development, many popular groups are springing up, including organisations representing the unemployed and the piqueteros, food banks and groups committed to finding alternative solutions. Social solidarity organisations are appearing, and they disavow the country that is becoming "a nightmare version of its former dream", in the words of a tango written by the Argentine poet, Enrique Santos Discépolo. Led by NGOs, associations and other institutions, including football clubs, social solidarity campaigns flourish. The Buenos Aires metro offered two subway tickets in return for food donations to day-care centres and food banks.
The Argentine vitality also shines through in their humour (a father asks his son what he would like to be when he grows up; the boy says: "A foreigner"). By focusing on Argentina’s plight, with its injustices and obstacles, comedians have converted the worse aspects of daily life into a vehicle for protest. One newspaper quoted the philosopher Alejandro Rozitchner: "It’s wrong to say we don’t produce anything. We produce crises and disasters." The Diccionario de la Crisis(dictionary of the crisis), hot off the press, has a glossary of terms for recent events (5).
Homero Expósito wrote in an old tango: "With broken dreams we . . . float down the river of life as it drifts away." Broken dreams litter the pavements of Buenos Aires: a boy of 10 tries to catch a pigeon on Libertad Plaza in the business district. But he is no child at play. His siblings come to help him. They are looking for food.