Life in Argentina's free-fall economy
How three families in this once-rich country are dealing with the financial crisis
(Page 4 of 5)
"We're seeing signs of what could be important changes: The search for a messiah is broken, the middle class wants nothing of traditional politics, a country that has traditionally shown very little solidarity is expressing more community," says Manuel Mora y Araujo, a Buenos Aires public opinion analyst. "All of that could change again and be forgotten, but at least these are the seeds of what Argentina really needs, which is to become a country of institutions."Skip to next paragraph
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Eva de Golluscio, a spry grandmother who never succumbed to the attractions of "Don Juan Domingo" - Juan Perón - couldn't agree more. Now a retired teacher living comfortably off her late husband's pension, Mrs. de Golluscio says it was the twin institutions of good public education and hard work that made Argentina great. She recalls the old expression favored by poor immigrants escaping the poverty of Europe in the early 20th century: "In Argentina, you spit on the ground, and a flower grows and blooms."
Many of her and her husband's relatives were examples of the great social mobility machine that Argentina became for millions of immigrants who were either uneducated or came with a simple trade. "My grandmother always told me that our relatives came with one idea: to keep their sons out of war, have a house, and work so the children could study."
For Golluscio and millions of others, the formula worked. There were setbacks. Golluscio's own parents lost a business in the 1930 Depression. But within a generation of many immigrants' arrival, children grew up to become professionals. Golluscio's four children are all professionals, mostly in education - but that hasn't guaranteed them better times, she laments.
"They get by on small salaries, and this crisis leaves everybody with doubts about the future," she says.
For Golluscio's family, the mobility machine has stalled.
Daughter Lucía Golluscio is a university linguist, and holds a post with a prestigious national research institute - an institute she says faces gutting as the government deals out more cutbacks.
Argentina's vaunted public higher-education system - still free for top achievers like her son - is under attack. Cutbacks have sent many students who can afford it to more stable private colleges. Budgetary uncertainty opens up the possibility of a broad teachers strike when classes resume in March.
Mrs. Golluscio's husband, Pablo Garaño, is a psychologist with a job auditing government health programs. In December his salary was cut by 30 percent, so together they bring in about 3,000 pesos a month (since the devaluation, about US$2,000) for a family of five.
Golluscio says the country changed dramatically under President Carlos Menem, who came into office a Peronist in 1989 but engineered the privatizations and what she calls the shrinkage of the state - despite ballooning spending - that typified the 1990s.
The past decade taught Argentines a different ethic, she says, one they are suffering from today: "Hard work lost its currency under Menem. It was having money and who you knew that paid."
Perusing the newspaper in the Garaño family's neat but small apartment in a former industrial zone of the city, her husband points out an article that details Argentina's shift from a middle-class country to one with a social structure more closely mirroring other Latin American countries - a small but very wealthy upper class and a large mass of poor, with few in the middle.
In fact, over the past quarter century, a country that once stood apart from its poorer Latin neighbors has witnessed a debilitating rise in poverty. In 1975, notes Claudio Lozano, an economist with the Argentine Labor Confederation, about 10 percent of a population of 22 million lived in poverty. Today, about 40 percent of Argentina's 36 million citizens are poor.
Mr. Lozano blames what he calls a "strategy of inequality," which he says involved lowering wages and building up a public debt that needs servicing, to the financial benefit of a few. Corruption and inefficiency played a role, he says, but so has an international economic strategy that doomed Argentina's higher wages and broader social benefits compared with its poorer neighbors.
It's an argument that receives partial support in the Garaño household. "I agree when Duhalde says this [free-market] economic model ruined a people in 25 years," Mr. Garaño says. "I just don't think he is the one to do anything about it."