Life on the Edge

Buenos Aires -- Estela Galinde would rather be spending her Sunday afternoon in more restful activity than selling sweet breads at a political rally of the enraged citizens who chased the first of Argentina's five recent presidents from office last December. In her careful coif, blouse and schoolmarm glasses, the 38-year-old Galinde looks more like a trained social worker, which she is, than a market mammy, but as she hasn't had a job in over two years, the bake sale is not volunteer work, but survival. Stepping carefully over the other declassed residents sprawled out in Buenos Aires' Centennial Park to listen to firebrands denounce the banks ("Thieves!"), the Congress ("Gangsters!"), the IMF ("Thugs!"), the unions ("Cutthroats!"), even the bishops ("Fascists!"), Galinde is a typical middle-class Argentine wondering where she'll get her next meal.

Above the demonstrators, residents gaze out over their wrought-iron balconies onto the grassy expanse. Below, a single copy of the local newspaper Clarín is passed from group to group (no one spends 30 cents on extras these days), and clumps of the curious gather to read the latest financial news, no longer the preserve of specialists. The dollar fell slightly after the weeklong bank "holiday," says the lead article, not because its value suddenly stabilized, but because no one could get ahold of cash to go out and buy them. It is like CNN announcing that gas prices in the U.S. were falling because the streets were suddenly deserted of cars.

Argentina has had almost as many economy ministers as presidents in recent weeks -- though still short of Bolivia's all-time record of six presidents in one day. Nevertheless, the spectacle of the richest nation in Latin America succumbing to the instability associated with dysfunctional Andean states is deeply disturbing to a region perennially promising to get itself onto the fast track of development and modernity and never quite coming through. If Argentina -- bountiful, worldly, industrialized, vain, cultured Argentina -- can go broke, then this continent really has few permanent landmarks. The urbane, if somewhat rough-edged, Argentine middle class, the closest Latin America can boast to matching its First World counterparts, is now an endangered species.

An estimated 2,000 people a day are being driven into the ranks of the poor. The gross domestic product, at $9,000 per head a few years ago, has plunged to $3,000. That means a capital that once thought of itself as the Paris of Latin America now subsists at the same level as San Salvador or Guatemala City.

"Give me a broom, I'll sweep the streets, anything," says Galinde. "I'm not ashamed, look! I'm selling cake! I'll sell cake all day long if I can find someone to buy it!" Not so easy in a country where money, to all intents and purposes, has ceased to exist.

The financial system is teetering on the brink because anyone awake since December is trying to get cash out of the bank, buy dollars and stuff them under a mattress. Jobs, such as they are, continue to evaporate; retail sales in February fell by a whopping 48 percent from the already depressed rates of a year ago.

Strolling around the boulevards and cozy neighborhoods of this capital, amid its stately apartment buildings with heavy glass doors, its fancy shops, endless cafés, the spectacular cuisine on every corner and the unmistakably European feel of the place, one can hardly imagine the institutional decay taking place just behind the façades. Weimar Germany must have had a similar aroma, although there are no Austrian psychopaths in evidence, and Argentines are far better inoculated against fascist adventurism than Americans would be under similar circumstances. (They've lived through it quite recently and are in no mood for seconds.) Galinde's family of four lives in a modest, three-room dwelling on the fifth floor of a slightly battered apartment block in a barrio that has clearly seen better days. Unemployed men loiter on every corner, passing cigarettes from hand to hand. The Galindes still owe 11 years' worth of mortgage payments and, as they haven't made one in nearly a year, are nervously awaiting foreclosure. "My father is still alive and offered to sell his flat and come live with us to help us out," says Galinde sadly. But with access to cash restricted, real estate sales are big risks. "The place was worth 50,000 pesos a year ago, when you could still swap pesos for dollars," she explains. "Now, with the devaluation, he wouldn't get more than 17,000. But even after selling, you still can't withdraw the money from the bank. Who knows what the exchange rate will be in six months? We might end up with nothing."

Galinde and her husband are thinking of an alternative offer from her father, if they do lose their home: move in with him. "We love Dad, but how will two pre-teenage girls and three adults get along in that tiny space? On the other hand, his pension is steady income. We'll eat."

"What's to become of us?" wonders Galinde aloud, to no one in particular. Half of Argentina's population, now officially living below the poverty line, is asking itself the same thing.

Except for New York City, more people per square block are undergoing psychotherapy in Buenos Aires than anywhere else in the world. Wags will suggest that, in fact, there is something generically wrong with them, a judgment quickly seconded by their resentful Chilean neighbors west of the Andes (where I live), who secretly suffer because they themselves are more mestizo, less sophisticated and even farther from Paris than the gorgeous and insufferable porteños from the Argentine capital. Traditionally, the Chileans' inferiority complex would start with simple wealth: The Argentines were always sustained in their casual arrogance by the agricultural output of their vast pampas, the huge industrial belt ringing Buenos Aires, their classy and elegant urban life -- in short, the consciousness of having it all.

Now, it's gone. Argentina, as any casual reader of the daily paper knows, is heading down the tubes at an alarming rate, even for Latin America. So far, the country's middle class is still recognizable, its crabby insolence, both exasperating and comically disarming, intact. But the economic earthquake is threatening to produce an accompanying tectonic shift in the national psyche.

The Buenos Aires office of psychoanalyst Silvia Bleichman, a distinguished and kindly lady in her 50s, could be around the corner from Sigmund Freud's, a tastefully furnished apartment in a cavernous old building complete with an ancient, shuffling porter. Bleichman's book Pain Risk makes grim fun of the measurement of the premium that banks require a country to pay to keep lending it money. Argentina's "country-risk" is now around 5,000 points, that is, prime rate plus an incredible, unprecedented 50 percent. Nigeria's score, by comparison, is a mere 3,200.

"Neurosis is the luxury of cultured peoples," says Bleichman, defending her compatriots' interest in the examined life. But now, she says, Argentine culture is in danger of being crushed. "The future has been erased; life projects are no longer viable. We Argentines were always ready to live, to fall in love at age 70, to start afresh, get involved," she continues. "Now, people are leaving the capital, heading back to the provinces to survive. There is profound anguish."

"We're like the Greeks after the golden age," she worries, "heading for an endless decline."

That judgment is not only an impeachment of poor leadership but a subtle indictment of what Argentines have thought and felt about themselves for many decades. After insisting that the country was at least partially immune to the domination of the North, citizens now look around Latin America and admit, between their teeth, "We're no better." It's a bitter pill, especially since, as Bleichman notes, "Pauperization is worse than poverty."

Argentina's economic and social meltdown is hard to grasp through mere numbers, but the Great Depression of the 1930s is the only comparable phenomenon in modern history. The country was already in a deep decline for nearly four years before the bottom fell out in 2001. In a city that prided itself on having few beggars and little urban crime, tiny girls now hover next to the ticket machines in the subway, ready to snatch the falling coins away from any commuter with slow reflexes. In the distant suburbs, chronic poverty is giving way to hunger and misery. When a truckload of livestock overturned on a highway near the northern city of Rosario, destitute villagers set upon the dazed animals and hacked them to pieces. "No one waited to bleed the meat, so it was rubbery," said one contented amateur butcher. "But we didn't care."

Lisandro Orlov, an innovative Lutheran pastor long engaged in reintegrating the destitute, now wonders in despair if there is any use for people like him in the country. "Reintegrate them into what?" he asks rhetorically. "I feel like a fake, counseling people into job-training programs when there are no jobs." Not to mention his own pension fund, now essentially confiscated. "I made a mistake," he admits. "I was born Argentine."

However, the system that is now disintegrating in earnest was hardly a model even in happier times. Just a block from Silvia Bleichman's elegant digs is the Argentine Foreign Ministry, where I innocently went to obtain my press credentials. Despite 20 years on this continent, I was taken aback by the sample of Argentine ineptitude displayed there. Bearing the required documents, I learned that Señora Beatriz -- who handles this matter -- "is ill." At least six press-office employees enthusiastically described their family business and clipped the daily newspaper, while I waited to see if something else would happen. Nothing did. Not only then, but every single day for two weeks thereafter, in response to my puzzled phone calls. "Señora Beatriz is still sick," I was repeatedly told, without the slightest hint of embarrassment or suspicion that this might not be universally considered a compelling reason for a total breakdown.

Perhaps Silvia would have a diagnosis, but I like to understand this incident as an example of Post-Feudal Inductive Reasoning Disorder: I don't know you; therefore, the boss doesn't know you; therefore, you can safely go fuck yourself up a rope. One comes to expect this phenomenon in, say, Honduras, but it is still mildly shocking to experience it two doors down from a Louis Vuitton outlet.

Despite the apparent oddity, not one Argentine expressed surprise at hearing this story; on the contrary, they expressed surprise at me for telling it. Argentines take it for granted that government exists exclusively for the purpose of paying outrageous salaries to people who do virtually no work. In fact, they even have a name for payroll ghosts who have never been seen at their places of supposed employment: "gnocchis," because Italo-Argentines traditionally served this pasta dish on the 29th of every month -- government payday. The "gnocchis" are just one form of the notorious corruption that, more than breaking the budget, has annihilated the country's faith in its dubious leadership, which still seems to be not getting it. In the midst of the current debacle and with the local currency gyrating wildly, financial reporters took delight in showing me how officials in the Economics Ministry were still naming buddy boys to nonexistent posts.

Other examples fill the daily papers: the Peronist deputy appointed to a vacant seat despite having pulled down a full disability pension for the last 15 years; a congresswoman on the verge of expulsion for shouting "You journalists all should be shot!" on live TV, now rumored to be demanding $700,000 to resign and go quietly; the judge in Spain who worked for a month in Argentina in the 1970s and has received a full pension ever since. As an Argentine visitor to Santiago once told me after a notorious corruption case in Chile broke out, "At least in your country the ministers resign!"

But bureaucratic indifference isn't the whole story behind the paralysis caused by Señora Beatriz's head cold. The unblinking conviction that this domestic detail logically should and must interrupt all programmed activity reflects an unimaginably narrow mental universe simultaneously at work amid the cosmopolitan splendor of Buenos Aires. Throughout Latin America one can encounter this unattractive capacity to reduce the cosmos to the few square meters where one works, shops and takes a crap, and to refuse to admit any external data whatsoever, like Santiago's taxi drivers who don't know the streets of their own city and have zero interest in learning them. The phenomenon reflects a state of humanity in which few people take delight in doing a good job, because there are no rewards and considerable dangers in doing so. In this regard, Latin America approximates the former Soviet bloc, in which workers quickly grasped that survival required obedience but not competence. Excelling, or doing anything not explicitly ordered, implied standing out, thus opening yourself up for attack, either from the hierarchy or from your alert fellows. Argentina, despite its urbane pride at being a cut above, is deeply infected.

All of which is not to let the masters of the Universe headquartered in Washington off the hook. Argentina's plight has a whole lot to do with decisions made on 19th Street, N.W., where the International Monetary Fund rules on the fates of billions (of people, as well as dollars). Not just critics of globalization, but the financiers themselves, have plenty to say about where to place the blame.

"Argentina is like Enron," simplified Claudio Zuchovicki of Capital Markets Inc., on Spanish-language CNN. "And the IMF is Arthur Andersen." That is, while the country was being taken to the cleaners, the distinguished international banking system dominated by the U.S. was shilling for the crooks.

Of course, the pious choirboys at the U.S. Treasury and State Department are busy pointing the finger at Argentina's corrupt elite, conveniently forgetting how they feted and boosted these same leaders during the 1990s before the bubble burst. (They even turned a blind eye to the outrageous terrorist attacks on two Jewish institutions that killed more than 50 people and were never seriously investigated by the Argentine government.)

Even better, the banks themselves know the IMF laid an egg. The February 2002 International Risk Update, published by Bank ONE, says the IMF worsened the crisis with policy zigzags and dilly-dallying. "The IMF required Argentina to implement draconian fiscal cuts," states the bankers' brief, "then turned around and criticized the inevitable failure of these policies."

Nevertheless, to get back on its feet, Argentina will have to take a long, hard look at itself, especially because the Bush team seems to be enjoying its suffering. Since the heyday of Argentina's wealth in the postwar period, the country has become dangerously accustomed to easy routes to cash. While the system produced plenty of surplus, the average citizen could be kept grumbling but ultimately complacent. Now, the country's felonious habits have been symbolically crystallized in the banks' massive stiffing of depositors.

Argentines have even come up with a new form of public repudiation that expresses their profound cynicism: the escrache, which suggests not mere protest but personal humiliation. One economics minister who served the Videla dictatorship was shoved and pummeled on a downtown street; a Peronist provincial governor was cursed in an airport. "Without justice, escrache," read the banners.

Exactly, agrees Congressional Deputy Elisa Carrió, 43, a ball-breaking whistle blower who now leads all potential presidential candidates in the opinion polls. "Nations with justice and accountability do not have -- or need -- escraches," she says, adding that the vigilante justice is somewhat worrying. But in a society twisted by impunity, starting with the torturers and assassins of the dictatorship, all other crimes pale into insignificance. Carrió celebrated the recent move by the legislature to impeach the country's entire Supreme Court.

Daring to predict the future, she says the country's current leadership is wasting time and should stage elections immediately to legitimize new leadership. "The men here don't accept reality," is her diagnosis. "The longer they hang on, the more chaotic and dangerous the eventual solution."

"But it all has to happen," she continues with remarkable optimism. "It's important, and it's good. We Argentines will be humbler and simpler people as a result."

Whether Carrió's inspiring vision is right or not, maybe the current crisis really does offer all of us on this continent an encouraging possibility; perhaps a real renovation of the Argentine polity and its people's historical view of themselves can point us in a useful, new direction in this age of creeping doubts about the universal benevolence of standardized, globalized, one-size-fits-all market economies. Perhaps if Argentina can stop pretending to be France, and the rest of Latin America can stop gazing wistfully at the United States, we can have a more earnest, substantive debate about what really can work in countries that, dammit, simply are not like the developed world, countries where half of the citizens are poor, where the remnants of feudalism have not been erased, and where complacent elites have no real interest in changing a social and economic system that provides them with servants, vast privileges and unbridled power. Argentines now are too desperate to be sold on policy tinkering and more of the same. These dangerous times may be a signal that one country, at least, is beginning to emerge from the illusions and sterile formulas of the past.

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