Frustrated Argentines take business into own hands

Argentina elects a new president on Sunday amid a five-year recession.

Perched on a ragged bar stool in front of the boarded-up Hotel Bauen, Paula Pereyra shakes a small cardboard box and asks passersby for something that is often in short supply here: solidarity.

"Help support the workers of the Hotel Bauen!" she shouts, occasionally garnering a 25-cent coin or a thumbs-up from those walking hurriedly down chaotic Callao Avenue.

Ms. Pereyra's call for support, however, is not the typical rallying cry of oppressed workers against unfair management. In fact, Pereyra is management.

A month ago, Pereyra and 40 of her fellow maids, bellboys, bartenders, and maintenance men took control of the Hotel Bauen, shuttered since 2001 by Argentina's foundering economy. The hotel's employees-turned-"owners" are now working feverishly to get it up and running again.

The Hotel Bauen is Argentina's newest "cooperative," one of scores of failed business - large and small, devastated by Argentina's five-year recession - now in the hands of former employees. With more than 1 in 5 Argentines out of work, this do-it-yourself movement has grown out of the frustration and distrust that many Argentines feel toward their government, sentiments that are sure to be on minds of voters Sunday when they go to the polls to pick a new president.

"People do not expect much from politicians here, because Argentines have been very hard hit by political and economic developments in the 20 years of democracy," says Carlos Gervasoni, a political scientist here. "We have had hyperinflation, unemployment, corruption ... devaluation, and an increase in poverty."

Poverty is what Marcelo Ruarte is trying to avoid. Mr. Ruarte worked at the reception desk of the Hotel Bauen for 20 years and is now leading the cooperative.

"This is a wish for all our families, to open this hotel up, because there is not another possibility for us," he says, sitting at a large round table in the hotel's darkened lobby.

Many co-ops are flourishing. Ice cream and candy maker Ghelco has been functioning as a cooperative since September, when 40 former floor workers took the reins. Metal factories, textile mills, and restaurants have also been given a new lease on life. And just last week, employees of the domestic airline Dinar announced plans to start a cooperative in hopes of keeping the cash-strapped carrier in the air.

The Bauen is the first hotel in Argentina to become part of this trend. Steady streams of workers now come and go from inside the towering 20-story building, there to make much-needed repairs to the hotel's infrastructure.

It's a far cry from the Bauen's salad days of 1978. The luxury hotel opened when Argentina hosted (and won) the World Cup soccer championship. For many years, politicians and celebrities often gathered here. But recession and a slew of newer hotel chains moving in forced the Bauen to close two years ago.

Walking the hotel's long, dark corridors, waiter Raul Vizgarra gazes proudly into the various ballrooms and salons as he reflects on the difficult task ahead.

"This will be hard job to pull off," he says. "But we have all the right people with all the right skills, and we know how to do it."

Most Argentines seem to sympathize with the do-it-yourself work ethic that these co-ops are preaching and practicing. Some lawyers have volunteered to help them through the legal maze, and the government has set up an office to help those who want to reopen closed businesses.

Not all takeovers have been a complete success, however. Legal battles between owners and workers rage on in the courts. Earlier this week, workers of the occupied Brukman clothing factory clashed with police over an eviction notice; dozens were injured and arrested.

The city granted the Bauen co-op a 90-day lease, a short amount of time to put the long-dormant hotel back in order. Mr. Vizgarra and his colleagues say they have been so busy washing linens, scrubbing floors, and repairing the electrical circuits that they haven't given much thought to who will be their next president.

Neither, apparently, have many Argentines. Despite feverish campaigning, none of the five candidates has garnered more than 22 percent in the opinion polls, and none is expected to earn the 45 percent needed to avoid a second-round runoff.

"A lot of people have concluded that they can't expect much from a new government, therefore they shouldn't care much who gets elected," says Mr. Gervasoni.

The one candidate who is universally loved or loathed here is Carlos Saul Menem. Mr. Menem ruled the country with power and pizzazz from 1989 to 1999, when many Argentines benefited from the peso's peg to the dollar and an array of privatization measures. Many now contend that Menem is to blame for Argentina's current economic quandary.

"Why am I going to vote for Menem? Because he is the best of the worst," says Alejandro Hugo Lopez, a Menem campaign volunteer. Despite allegations of corruption against the ex-president, Mr. Lopez says that he is the right man to lead Argentina out of chaos.

The two others running within the splintered Peronist Party, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa and Nestor Kirchner, are both experienced provincial governors. Mr. Kirchner has the endorsement of President Eduardo Duhalde, but that hasn't helped him in the polls. Mr. Saa was president for one week in December 2001, following bloody riots and the country's multibillion-dollar debt default.

The Peronists' most vocal critic is Ricardo Lopez Murphy, a US-educated economist who promises a progressive fiscal policy. Leftist-candidate Elisa Carrio has been praised for her fresh ideas, but it not expected to pose a real threat.

For Pereyra, the former maid, Sunday's election is the furthest thing from her mind; getting the Hotel Bauen back on its feet and providing for her six children and three grandchildren is top priority. "The politicians that we have, they don't help us at all...." she says, still shaking the small cardboard donation box. "But this movement isn't political; we are workers who are fighting because we don't have jobs, nothing more."

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