Life in Argentina's free-fall economy
How three families in this once-rich country are dealing with the financial crisis
The gentle jingle-jangle of a thousand keys barely wafts to the plaza's edge in central Buenos Aires. But the ire behind the gesture is thunderous.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's the corruption and greed of the entire political class, thinking only of its own pocket, that has sunk us," says Norma Trezza, shaking the keys to her home and a small plastic-bag factory - the family patrimony being tossed in Argentina's financial maelstrom.
The anger represented by clinking keys of Mrs. Trezza and other families in Argentina also carries a profound message to the far corners of Latin America and beyond. The crisis here comes at a time when many developing nations are questioning whether the international models of free-market economics and representative democracy promoted by the United States and Western Europe will work for them.
For Argentina, the questioning is especially sharp, because it comes from amid poverty where once there was wealth.
Less than a century ago, Argentina was more prosperous than Spain, Italy, or even France. Today, 4 in 10 Argentines live in poverty, and a generation of 20-somethings are trying to catch the next plane for the European homelands of their great-grandparents.
Compelled for the first time in her life to take public action, Mrs. Trezza says, "the mentality of the whole country has to change. We have to mature as a people and take responsibility for the future. We left a decade of big change to the politicians," she adds, "and look where it got us."
Since public protests began on Dec. 19 - in reaction to government restrictions on the public's access to its own cash and savings - Argentina has been through four presidents, before settling, grudgingly, on Eduardo Duhalde. The government is bankrupt, the banks fear deposit runs when controls ease, and the peso, after a decade of equal value with the dollar, has lost more than half its value.
The country waits on edge as the national currency begins a full free float today. How the peso fares will be one clue to prospects for the government's initial economic reforms announced last week, and to public confidence in Argentina's future.
Finance ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized countries (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) said on Saturday that Argentina was moving in the right direction. But there was no offer of immediate help for Latin America's third-largest economy.
Argentine Economy Minister Jorge Remes Lenicov is scheduled to fly to Washington tomorrow for talks with US and International Monetary Fund officials.
But most Argentines, like Mrs. Trezza, have concluded that their elected leaders are too corrupt, inept, inefficient, and spendthrift, to be trusted any longer.
The pot-clanging, key-shaking, and food riots of recent weeks reflect the stirring of civil disobedience and a deep dissatisfaction with their leadership. This could portend more chaos as the government seeks a path to economic stability. Or, as the spontaneous neighborhood councils sprouting up in middle-class neighborhoods suggest, the country may be witnessing the first tender shoots of grass-roots political activism.
"We're living ... a good lesson for Latin America and other regions where democracies are still being strengthened," says Roberto Bouzas, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences in Buenos Aires. "The message is that people have a limit to the incompetence and corruption of the political class."
In her own small way, that is the message Norma Trezza is sending as she marches through the streets of Buenos Aires, jangling her keys. And in a sense, the business fortunes of her family mirror the trajectory of Argentina in recent years.
In 1973, Mrs. Trezza (it's not unusual for Argentine women to keep their maiden names) and her husband, Jorge Guichané, took their meager savings, grade-school educations, and a solid faith in the future, and invested in a small plastic-bag machine. Both kept working their day jobs, he in a truck factory, she at an entry-level position in the local government. None of their three children were born yet, but even as babies came along, the couple pushed ahead with their dream, working nights and weekends. "We began making very simple bags we could produce at home after work, but it was a start," says Trezza, a small woman who favors fashionably fitted jeans and T-shirts during the workday.