BUENOS AIRES -- Estela Galinde would rather bespending her Sunday afternoon in more restful activity than selling sweet breads at a political rally of the enraged citizens who chased the first of Argentinas 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 hasnt 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 shell 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 Clarin 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 Bolivias 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, Ill sweep the streets, anything, says Galinde. Im not ashamed, look! Im selling cake! Ill 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 cafes, 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 facades. 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. (Theyve lived through it quite recently and are in no mood for seconds.)
Galindes 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 havent 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 wouldnt get more than 17,000. But even after selling, you still cant 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. Well eat.