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NoPaper for Passports: Broken Dreams for Buenos Aires

"In Argentina, every second citizen is bankrupt, not only the government. Everyday objects have becomeunaffordable luxuries. many no longer eat their fill. Nevertheless the policy of the IMF which produced such brilliant results should be applied everywhere in Latin America..The paper and cardboard gleaned from the garbage is sold for 42 centavos (around 0.12 cents) per kilo." This article is translated from the German in: die tageszeitung, September 2002.
No Paper for Passports

Broken Dreams for Buenos Aires

By Clara Auge

[This article originally published in: die tageszeitung, September 13, 2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.taz.de/pt/2002/09/13.nf/mondeText.artikel,a0068.idx,22. Clara Auge is a journalist in Buenos Aires.]

[The Argentinian government admitted it could not implement the judgment of the highest court on August 23, 2002 that the 13 percent reduction of all salaries and pensions practiced for a year was not lawful. Every second citizen is bankrupt, not only the government. Everyday objects have become unaffordable luxuries. Many no longer eat their fill. Nevertheless the policy of the IMF which produced such brilliant results should be applied everywhere in Latin America.]

At the famous Plaza de Mayo in the heart of the city, the tents are visible where the piqueteros, the unemployed demonstrators, spend a cold Argentinian winter night. In a quarter at the outskirts of Buenos Aires are the tents of the followers of Saint Cayetano, the patron saint of labor, whom the poorest of the poor invoke on his feast day for "bread for hunger and work for dignity". After nightfall, men and women often accompanied by children draw through the streets and rummage through the garbage with their hands searching for anything that can be sold. They usually push carts filled with paper and cardboard sold for 42 centavos (around 0.12 cents) per kilo. Normally they collect everything that any buyer could want, plastics, metal and glass.

Most of them have lost their jobs and attempt to survive in a land that has experienced an enormous social disaster since December 2001 when the financial crisis led to reduced social expenditures, loss of purchasing power and corralito (partial closing of bank accounts). Between June 2001 and June 2002, the gross domestic product shriveled 13.5 percent (in the last six months the decline reached the record of 16.3 percent). This decline had disastrous effects on the labor market- and income situation and triggered a break-taking increase in poverty. For 2002, the economic commission for Latin America (Cepal) forecasts a decline of employment of 13.5 percent. (1) In June 2002, 19 of the 35 million Argentinians lived below the poverty line (less than 194.40 Euro per month). 8.4 million are in extreme poverty (less than 85.32 Euro per month).

In the schools, children faint because of hunger. On the other hand, hardly anyone skips school since many elementary school children receive their only meal there everyday. (2) Mothers with plates in their hands pick up the school food for their sick children... Hundreds of schools kept their canteens open over the 2002 winter holidays for the first time. For two years, there were undernourished children but the problem has intensified in the last months and spreads to the senior high schools.

It is shocking to see how brutally the collapse has accelerated in this country after the four-year recession spared some areas. Since the sudden rebellion of the people that brought about the overthrow of President Fernando de la Rua in December 2001, one can see in innumerable everyday situations the painful and difficult mourning work of a land that was once one of the powerful countries of the world. (3)

The traces of the collapse are as unmistakable as the lines of emigration candidates at the consulates of Spain and Italy. Much patience and determination are needed o survive the long waiting times. Since the end of July, no passports have been issued any more since the state can no longer pay for the paper.

Whoever earns his money by selling scrap metal that is more profitable than the trade with recycled waste paper sometimes seizes upon very novel methods. Some steal the copper cable of telephone wires or the protective aluminum caps on the telephone circuits of traffic lights. The memorial honoring Christopher Colombus a hundred meters from the presidential palace was one of the first to lose its bronze tablet. Since then, more traces of the past have disappeared from Buenos Aires. The statues and memorials are strangely silent. The municipal authorities want to replace the bronze plaques with ceramic plaques. The crisis affects the history of the city and its past.

In the offices where ink cartridges have become luxury items since the beginning of the crisis, the old cartridges are refilled even if the quality suffers. In the pedestrian zones of downtown, shoes, cigarette lighters and crayons are offered on improvised sales tables (that can be dismantled as fast as lightning with an approaching inspection). Elsewhere businesses close. Impoverished persons pass through the cafes and restaurants and ask for something to eat or a few coins. Some shops keep their doors locked and open them after a face check so no beggars enter. In the better quarters, women sit in front of the supermarkets and implore customers to buy their rice or tea.

Exchange Markets instead of Cash

The constant worry, insecurity, poverty and youthful criminality that climbed 142 percent (according to statistics of the Buenos Aires provincial government) creates a climate of fear in a city that until recently was full of pride in crowded cafes, movie houses and theaters and a flourishing nightlife. Fear has changed Argentinian habits. This anxiety known for a long time in several large cities of neighboring countries is new for Buenos Aires that formerly was Latin America's securest metropolis.

Firms specializing in security systems, building protection, airplane reinforcement or self-defense courses have higher sales. "We sell water in the wilderness", declares one manager of a firm that sells alarms to private persons. The rich leave their luxury coaches to avoid being visible targets for crooks or hoodlums who recently specialize in sudden abductions. They seize their victims in the well-to-do and poor living quarters and release them for payment of 250 to 5000 Euros. Children who can distinguish the taste of grilled toads and grilled rats live in Quilmes around thirty kilometers outside Buenos Aires.
The closing of bank accounts and the national rise in unemployment lead people to the many new "exchange markets" where products and services are traded free of charge. The devalued peso was already replaced by local currencies in many provinces...

After being driven into ruin by their government (or governments), the banks and the International Monetary Fund, Argentinians, above all residents of the capital city and province of Buenos Aires, have organized more protest marches, street blockades and demonstrations than ever. The reaction to these massive social protests is open repression. When a mass demonstration of the emaciated unemployed occurred on June 26, 2002, the police sealed off the south of the capital and arrested 160 persons. Two dead and ninety injured remained on the battlefield. The number of dead Argentinians has risen to 35 since December 19.

Ten years ago Buenos Aires seemed to have a glorious future. Today the horizon darkens. Still one can see a few bright spots here and there in the sky over Buenos Aires.

The capital city was always a living cultural center with many events and possibilities. Astonishingly this cultural life did not grind to a halt with the decline of purchasing power, peso-devaluation, despair and incredible uncertainty in the country. Quite the contrary!...

Within the last 20 months, 300 bookstores in the country have closed. People who last year could have bought books often read in the libraries. Even in the context of the restrictions forced by the peso-devaluation (300 percent compared to the dollar in six months), the cultural energies have a remarkable vitality. The Argentinian movie house is paradoxically in an historical boom season. Intellectuals and artists still honor resistance against the dreadful feeling of loss and powerlessness.

At many events, food, toys and medicines are given to the poorest of the poor by new relief organizations. Countless associations of unemployed and piqueteros, soup kitchens and other institutions seeking ways to avert the worst arise from the ground, parallel to the phenomenon of a cultural life renewed by the crisis.

In addition, numerous new solidarity movements react to a country gradually transforming into the ugly grimace of a hallucination...

The amazing life energy is expressed in many ways. In a bitter and sobering anecdote, a father asks his son what he wants to be when he grows up and his son replies: "a foreigner".

Satirists spear the present situation, its injustice and its hopelessness, with a sharp-tongued irony strengthening the protest against the tragedy of everyday Argentinian life. The philosopher Alejandro Rozitcher writes in a daily newspaper: "It isn't true that we don't produce anything. We produce crises and catastrophes." Such sayings borne out of distress have been collected and published in the "Dictionary of the Crisis". (5) A ten-year old child chases a pigeon on the Plaza de la Libertad in the business center of Buenos Aires. This isn't a game any more. His brothers and sisters hurry to help. They are all hungry.

In a tango over fifty years old, Homero Exposito wrote: "With broken dreams, we and all other creatures enliven the internalized river of life." Today more than ever the pavements of Buenos Aires, the capital city of nostalgia, are over sown with broken dreams.

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