Hopeless in Buenos Aires

GLUM faces and empty pockets have turned Buenos Aires - once a cheery tribute to political incorrectness where wolf-whistling at women and hurling abuse at fellow motorists were accepted as natural behaviour on its streets - into a shadow of its former self.

Instead of being tuned to football matches, televisions in bars and coffee shops all over the city are tuned to round-the-clock news coverage of an economic and political crisis that could endanger the survival of the country’s once all-dominant Peronist Party.

Argentina’s economic collapse has taken its toll not only on pockets, but on the nation’s psyche. Medical consultations for headaches, stomach troubles and other stress disorders have soared, along with the sale of tranquillisers, one of the few growth areas since the crisis began.

“I’ve labelled it Argentinitis,” says doctor Bernardo Frider. “Every day more people are suffering from it.”

Groaning under a four-month banking freeze that has limited withdrawals to only a few hundred pesos a week, and stunned by the total closure of banks imposed on Monday, Argentinians looked on in a state of almost panic this week. They are seeing the government of Peronist President Eduardo Duhalde fail to find its feet after the resignation of his entire Cabinet on Tuesday.

“This is the last hurricane,” says Elisa Carri, a legislator and the no-nonsense anti-corruption crusader of the independent ARI political party, who polls put as the front-runner for the presidential elections in October 2003.

“The previous hurricane swept away the Radical Party [of the former president Fernando de la Rua, who was forced to resign by popular demonstrations last December], but this one will sweep away the Peronist party, and we have to be very careful that it doesn’t bring an extreme rightwing regime in its stead.”

As often happens when times are hard, many Argentinians are finding comfort in religion. Effigies of the Virgin Mary clutter living rooms across the country, and pilgrimages to churches where statues of the Virgin are proclaimed to possess miraculous powers have become a weekly routine for many.

On a more practical level, in what is fast becoming a cashless society, an ever-larger number of people are turning to bartering clubs to obtain items of daily necessity.

“I bake cakes at home and bring them here to trade for clothes for my children,” says Elvira Gomez, who attends every weekend fair at a bartering club in the lower-middle class Quilmes suburb of Buenos Aires.

But since the first banking restrictions were imposed last December, and with the 20% unemployment rate expected to reach 30% by the end of the year, the clubs have moved uptown.

The latest one opened last month in the trendy Barrio Norte neighbourhood. “My nerves are a wreck. I’m taking tranquillisers every day,” says a woman who offers sewing services at the new club.

A hairdresser says she found it hard to take the plunge. “What have I come to? I used to go shopping on the weekends!”

Obtaining goods to barter can be difficult, but not impossible with a little ingenuity. Every day some 1 000 people congregate at the doors of the central market just outside Buenos Aires and beg for vegetables and fruit thrown out by producers.

“I take the fruit to the barter club and trade it for milk and diapers for my baby,” says one young woman.

Others have adapted to the cashless society by pooling their resources, with four or more families moving in together to save money on rent. “We share a two-room apartment,” says a woman who has moved her husband and children in with another family. “What we try and do is for each family to be here at different times of the day, so it doesn’t feel so crowded.”

The crisis has hit senior citizens particularly hard. Years of corruption have bankrupted the state-run health service for pensioners, Pami.

“We can’t even bury our dead,” says an 80-year-old woman who is an activist for a group of pensioners who protest once a week outside congress.

“Pami used to pay for our funeral services, but it can’t afford to any longer, so the bodies of pensioners are piling up in hospital morgues. This is a new form of genocide, the genocide of the elderly.”

With the caretaker government of Duhalde showing no signs of tackling the issue of corruption, many Argentinians find it impossible to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

“The problem in Argentina isn’t actually corruption, there’s corruption everywhere in the world, what we have in Argentina is outright plunder,” says Antonio Corrado, a taxi driver (54).

Carri, who last year led an investigation into corrupt practices in Argentina’s banks and predicted this year’s financial collapse, agrees.

“In the 1970s they came for our industry, in the 1990s they came for our savings, but now they are coming for our homes and our land,” she warns.

Plans for the indexation of debts could send the monthly payments on loans, taken out when the peso enjoyed a one-to-one parity with the American dollar, soaring, making it almost impossible for homeowners and farmers to repay them.

Corrado is not hopeful. “The politicians have stolen our future,” he says.

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