Life in Argentina's free-fall economy
How three families in this once-rich country are dealing with the financial crisis
(Page 5 of 5)
But his son, Santiago, a tall, young man with a quick smile, sees reason for hope. The worst thing for him is seeing his friends' parents who have no job and no hope, sinking into despair. What encourages him, on the other hand, is the public activism he sees blooming in the crisis.Skip to next paragraph
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"What's really surprised me is that people who were never interested in politics before, now they are," he says. More optimistic than his mother, he says his solution in the face of an uncertain future is to have a project: He and a friend are writing a book about a Buenos Aires high school that had 100 of its students "disappeared" by authorities during the last military dictatorship.
A planned backpacking vacation with friends to neighboring Bolivia was replaced by a domestic trip after January's devaluation meant foreign travel was suddenly too expensive.
"Some people are looking for magical solutions, in fleeing the country or in some kind of new leader, but I don't believe in magical solutions," Santiago says. "I think you have to do things yourself."
With a few meager fruit trees shading the packed-dirt patio they claim as their family's social center, Norma Domínguez and Almirón Gavino live close to the ground.
It's the same Argentine ground her one-time farming parents thought would yield the fruits of prosperity. Today, the bare dirt of the couple's home, many of the streets around their plot, and the open sewers that weave throughout are nothing more than a reminder of the poverty they live in.
"There should be help for the unemployed, training for new jobs, and money to keep the kids in school," says Mrs. Domínguez, seated at a table outside the two-room shack she shares with Mr. Gavino and their six children. A few folded old mattresses are evidence that, on these warm summer nights, some of the family sleeps outside. "But the way it's done," she adds, "you owe some politician your life, and I don't have confidence in anyone any more."
Having given up, Domínguez and Gavino have checked out of the traditional economy. Their one source of hope is a bartering system that has spread through an impoverished Argentina. But while it keeps the family fed for now, it offers little hope for a better future.
Raising a family in a shanty in the rough suburbs southwest of Buenos Aires has always been difficult. After the metal curtain manufacturer Gavino worked at closed three years ago, things turned desperate - but not enough for the couple to accept partisan handouts.
"I did sign up for a work program a while ago, but it was nothing but a way to get you to go to political meetings," says Gavino, a compact man whose ropy forearms attest a life of labor. The sole purpose of the meetings, as far as he could tell, was to pressure program participants to kick back half of the 200-peso monthly salary to local bosses. "I didn't go for that."
So now the couple get by through alternative channels. Gavino divides boxes of detergent into smaller amounts and sells to neighbors who can only afford a wash at a time. But it is Domínguez's involvement in a community swap market that keeps the family above water. "It's really the reason we're still eating," she says.
The swap markets have bloomed around Buenos Aires in recent years as more people have lost jobs and had to learn to live without cash.
Domínguez collects scraps of material from a friend who works at a textile factory, and with an old sewing machine fashions baby clothes. On a recent day she traded a T-shirt and shorts set for a pizza. It would be dinner.
Yet while Domínguez is so far able to feed her family, she also knows that bartering can't meet all her family's needs - like keeping her children in school. While public schools are free, required books and other supplies are not. "I know the kids can't get ahead without an education," says Gavino, who left school after seventh grade to go to work. "But where will the money come from?"
The area where Domínguez and Gavino live is the kind that erupted in December with the food riots that set off Argentina's crisis, but Domínguez says she has no faith in any kind of social action.
She has heard comments of political experts who say Argentina needs a new generation of leadership, one that avoids promising magical solutions and faces the future honestly. But Domínguez is dubious.
"Right now, I can't see any way that we have a future," she says. It's a statement that leaves her children silent.