Argentina's seeds of hope

A barter club meets irregularly at an outdoor basketball court up the road from our house in this pampas village by the River Parana. Such clubs are found all over Argentina; they're part of a strategy against the poverty visited upon this once wealthy and self-confident country after the government, a little over a year ago, defaulted on its $141 billion foreign debt and became a pariah among nations.

Members of the club gather to exchange or sell mundane items necessary to a decent existence, like used dishtowels, old clothes, even prepared food, such as homemade empanadas, meat pies. Anybody can go in, buy, or sell. They are melancholy rummage sales. Directly across the street is a dilapidated old mansion, probably once the pride of the town. Emaus, a French charity, is installed there which sells used clothing and second-hand household items.

This is Rincon, a small town about 10 miles north of Santa Fe. The capital of the province of the same name, it is a poor place, in part even squalid. It is rich only in flowers and birds (parrots and hummingbirds) and celebrated in the region for its still beauty.

No one doubts these two local organized efforts are needed. The dawn of 2003 found half the population of Argentina in poverty. Over 20 percent of the workforce is unemployed. The rising incidence of crime has so alarmed the people that they are putting up steel bars to keep burglars at bay, even in this sleepy hamlet. The cost of living is up everywhere. In Santa Fe, it rose 70 percent over last year.

Figures like these, grim as they are, have a certain sterility to them. The head understands, but the heart doesn't feel it. Unless it is in news reports like these: In Tucumán Province, in a rural part of the Andean Northwest, nearly 20 children died of malnutrition during the past year.Already this year, several have died in Corrientes Province in the Northeast. When the first of these was reported, one could almost hear the shouts of outrage in Buenos Aires: "This is Argentina! Bread basket to the world. The land of beef, blessed with the richest soil on earth."

Later reports were met with helpless silence, though emergency measures have been taken. There is an irony of the cruelest sort in some of these figures, especially this one, reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: Argentina, with 38 million people, produces enough food to feed 262 million people. Yet, 50 percent of the children in Argentina suffer from malnutrition. And it goes on, each number a new sign of how deep this depression runs.

Concomitant with this, and even driving it, is a still unresolved political crisis triggered by the default: President Fernando de la Rua resigned, two others were chosen to fill out his term, but fell out of favor, and the fourth, Eduardo Duhalde, remains in office without anything resembling a political consensus. Many in the middle class have endured in a state of mind close to rage in response to the government's decision last year to freeze all bank accounts, allegedly to prevent the collapse of the banking system. Throughout last year, thousands of those deprived depositers went to the bank every day to bang pots against the closed steel doors.

One could hardly imagine a year more terrible than 2002, but, oddly enough, that is apparently not the way Argentines are thinking. An uptick in the general outlook is evident, fed possibly by a modest prescience of good news. Because the peso has dropped in value, sale of traditional exports, such as beef and grain, has increased, thus replenishing the government's coffers with hard currency. The weak peso has also attracted a wave of summer tourists from abroad: Buenos Aires, not too long ago among the most expensive cities in the world, is now among the least expensive. More important, the banks have begun giving their smoldering clients their money back, a little at a time. And the International Monetary Fund has an agreement to reschedule the debt, and bring Argentina back to fiscal legitimacy.

Taken together, all this doesn't amount to a recovery, but Argentines are acting as if it does. Last year, I could hardly engage in a conversation with anybody without hearing a string of off-color epithets about the country, its politicians, and everything else. Expectations were grim; people wanted to leave, many still do. (Applications for visas to the US grew by 800 percent last year.)

That kind of talk is no longer in the air. Something has happened, and no one is certain what it is. Argentines, never known to be an optimistic people, have raised their heads. A Gallup poll published here in early July reported that 49 percent of them expect this year to be better than last. More important, perhaps, among the thousand polled, 55 percent of those under the age of 35 felt that way.

In the near 40 years I have been living in or visiting this country, that is the most unexpected statistic I have ever seen.

Richard O'Mara is a former editor and foreign correspondent at The Baltimore Sun.

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