April 12, 2002

Double Depression — Argentine Ego Deflates Along With Economy

By Raul Vasquez

BUENOS AIRES—The men and women of Argentina have always been fond of pointing out how very different they are from hemispheric neighbors, how rich is their European blood and culture — a habit most other Latin Americans disregard as a mere rumblings of a notorious superiority complex.

But since the worst economic crisis in their nation’s history hit hard in December, suave Argentineans have been forced to face social demotion and a painfully bleak future. It is a bitter blow to the individualistic and inflated national ego.

Veronica Fradacín, a 30-year-old local artist, was hit by a disturbing piece of information weeks ago and can’t forget it. She read in the newspaper that waves of immigrants from poorer neighboring Latin American countries were abandoning Argentina and heading home.

“A lot of Bolivians were deciding they would rather live in Bolivia — in Bolivia! — than Argentina,” said Fradacin, her voice still laced with disbelief. “That’s when I knew we were really in trouble.”

This capital city is said to have more shrinks per capita than any other city in the world, even before the crisis. Now in Cordoba too, the country’s second largest city, hordes of new unemployed have been flooding to psychologists and psychoanalysts in record numbers. In a sad but not untypical indicator, hundreds here have resorted to selling their own hair to a wig store in the northern part of this city for less than the equivalent of $10 U.S.

The International Monetary Fund appears to be maintaining hard-line requirements for approving new loans to the government, which means drastic political and economic changes are in the cards. So Argentines are in the process of revamping their local and national identity, to adapt to tough times. It is not an easy process.

Thousands have already fled the country since December, when a sometimes-violent popular revolt shocked the world and deposed two presidents.

For those left behind, these last months of the Southern Hemisphere summer have been plagued by anxiety, decay and hopelessness.

“More than anything, it’s embarrassing,” said taxi driver Hugo Ciani, 42, from the town of Rosario, about 150 miles northwest of the capital. “It’s embarrassing that in a country like ours, with all the natural resources and culture we have, a class of bastard politicians and economists led us straight into the abyss while we stood back and watched.”

The economy is shattered, the entire political class is discredited, and there is now every indication that Argentinean’s worst ghost of the past — hyperinflation — is reemerging. The effects reverberate on the collective psyche.

“This isn’t just an economic or political crisis,” said Buenos Aires talk-radio psychologist Anna Maria Muchnic on a recent program. “It’s a moral crisis that’s ripping apart the seams of even our strongest social bonds.”

On any street corner, in nearly every cafe or store in Buenos Aires, you hear Argentineans complain about their fate. Most dramatic is the newly radical anti-establishment language of members of the once relatively conservative and indifferent middle class.

“It’s really sad. I don’t like blood and I’m not a violent person,” said Sergio Morel, 28, a clean cut-looking unemployed engineer from Buenos Aires. “But the only way to fix this country is for blood to spill and for everything to begin anew.”

Morel’s newfound affinity for violent social revolution appears tied directly to his inability to withdraw his money, deposited in U.S. dollars, from his Argentinean savings account. Like many fellow middle class savers, his money has been trapped since December by a government decree aimed at stemming an outflow of hard cash.

Many here say they have turned decidedly against the neo-liberal economic model that their leaders pursued so diligently for so many years.

“The international financing community treats us in very extortionist sort of way,” said Henry, a protester outside a bank who refused to give his last name. “They say they’ll lend us money, but so that we can pay them back double. Well, we don’t want that version anymore.” He wants a country, he said, “completely independent from the demands of the International Monetary Fund.”

Even members of another Argentine establishment, ex-military men, are huffy about the IMF. “For nearly 30 years we’ve been doing what the IMF and the United States have asked, look where it got us,” said Col. Horacio Ballester, president of Military Officials for Argentinean Democracy. “It’s a total unmitigated disaster. What else can I say?”

Vasquez (zeuqsavr@yahoo.com) is a freelance writer who recently spent a month in Argentina.

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