The Economic Side of the Equation

On the plane to Buenos Aires in 2002, I read the Chilean newspaper. The tumult of protests in Argentina’s capital was front page news. I struggled to swallow. How would I tell Evan we were headed for trouble? I bit my lip, exhaled, then touched his shoulder saying, “Honey, I don’t know how to tell you…”

He turned his head, “Just tell me.”
I pointed to the article. “The Argentine economy is collapsing. They’ve untied their peso from the US dollar. People are violently protesting in the streets against the corralito, their frozen bank accounts.”
He replied sagely, “Well, we are going there. That’s where our plane is headed. So, maybe it’s not as bad as the newspaper makes it out. If it is, we’ll return home to Chile.” I nodded. True, yet my pulse was not slowing.

The airport was busy, but calm. We withdrew Argentine pesos from an ATM, gathered our baggage, and hired a taxi to Hostel Milhouse.

Milhouse Hostal 2002
Hostel Milhouse, Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires

On the way, I asked the taxista about the protests. He said they marched from the Congress to the Casa Rosada to show displeasure at the devaluation of their entire life savings. Many women banged pots with wooden spoons noisily but peacefully. I quoted the El Mercurio article and he laughed. “What do the Chilean’s know of our crisis?” I took his point, and interpreted for Evan. Relieved, we received confirmation with our own eyes and ears the next day.

Congreso argentino 2002
Congress in Buenos Aires, fenced in during protests  Photo: Rebecca Cuningham

Our walking self-tour down Avenida de Mayo brought us to a mass of protesters. We felt the energized air near the Congress building. Evan commented how kids were playing in a park right next to the protest. The crowd held signs or beat pots and pans, called the cacerolazo (big or noisy pot). The taxista spoke the truth. Tourism was safe. Our server at lunch said that gathering was smaller than when the bank freeze began in December. He and many argentinos blamed the neoliberalist policies of the IMF for the crisis.

Casa Rosada 2 2002
Casa Rosada fenced off during protests 2002 photo: Rebecca Cuningham

The corralito combined with runaway inflation, left los argentinos poorer each day. From 1:1 with the dollar, it was $1 for 3 pesos in April 2002. Those who saved $400,000 for retirement, had $125,000 left in the bank, and could withdraw $250 a week.

We felt guilty we could withdraw money, when nationals could not. All our food, lodging, and tourism bills we paid in cash; bringing more pesos into Argentina. We joked about buying an apartment in Buenos Aires. Maybe we weren’t completely kidding. But it felt wrong to take advantage of the situation.

Avenida de Mayo 2002
Avenida de Mayo Apartment Building

This was the scene when we met Martín at the Italian restaurant. Sadly, he had come to Argentina for employment, thinking his finances would improve. Despite circumstances, he was kind enough to link us to his pueblo of birth.

Later that week, we crossed the Río Plata. At the port ATM in Montevideo, all was normal until the key part of the transaction. The machine clicked, rollers spun, and nothing emerged. Thrice, I failed, asking for increasingly smaller amounts. Easy explanation; argentinos smart enough to sneak over the bay emptied the machine.

Río Plata Bay 2002
Río Plata Bay, looking from Montevideo to Buenos Aires 

We paid our taxista in dollars. But we could not pay for our room in cash. The innkeepers of Hostal Chivito told us not to worry, we could pay tomorrow, and offered us dinner. At the long communal table, I asked a little girl her nationality and she said, “Yo soy uruguaya, ¿y vos?”(1) That’s my favorite Rioplatense sentence. The next morning, Evan withdrew money at an ATM a kilometer away, and returned to pay our bill. Martín’s childhood friend picked us up in his taxi. And that, is the rest of the story.

Or is it? I’d like to say the 1998-2002 economic depression in Argentina had a happy ending. The IMF itself admits they handled the Argentinean financial crisis poorly and in May of 2018, the corralito is back.

  1. pronounced “Zho soy urugwyzha, ee vos?” The y has a strong z sound in Argentina and Uruguay (Rioplatense, named for the body of water that separates them). Vos is particular to that region, as well as a few other countries, as the informal “you.”

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic aquí.

Rebecca Cuningham

One thought on “The Economic Side of the Equation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s