Making ends meet in Argentina

On many walls of Argentine cities is a photograph of an old 1,000-peso note - equivalent to 10 cents following a recent currency reform - and the bold inscription: ''Do you remember?''

The poster says that in 1973, the note could buy 390 kilos (858 pounds) of bread or 67 kilos of meat - enough to feed an average Argentine family about 60 times over.

Today, it will barely cover the cost of eight grams of bread or one gram of meat - about enough for the mouse in the cupboard.

A weak peso and constantly rising prices have become a part of life here, like tea in Britain and siestas in Spain.

The end of the military regime last December and the coming to power of center-left populist President Raul Alfonsin brought the hope of a new beginning. But the the fact that inflation has become even worse in recent weeks has inspired a special feeling of disillusionment.

''Before, you could blame it all on the military regime. Now people are realizing that the problem is more complex,'' says Enrique Szewach, a young local economist.

In each of the first three months of Argentina's new democratic life, the cost of living has outpaced official government forecasts by an average of 10 percentage points, bringing the annual inflation rate in March to nearly 480 percent.

This is well off target from Mr. Alfonsin's goal to bring inflation down to two-digit figures by the end of the year. The peso on the black market has depreciated by more than 100 percent against the dollar since December.

In an attempt to prepare public opinion for more austere times ahead - Argentina is in the middle of key negotiations with the International Monetary Fund - the government has blamed overly generous salary increases for the upward pressure on prices. But such explanations fall on deaf ears among the poster-watchers.

Nobody knows the value of the peso better than Rosa Martinez. With husband Juan in early retirement, Rosa has joined an estimated 10.6 million Argentines (more than 30 percent of the total population) who, according to a recent survey by the local economic research group Fide, are finding it increasingly hard to finance a basic family budget.

''I've worked all my life and never had a problem,'' Rosa says. ''Now it's different. Before prices used to go up a few cents. Now it's 10, 20, 30 pesos all of a sudden.

''I voted for Alfonsin, but what does that matter now? The question is how to find the money to survive.''

Rosa works as a domestic servant in Buenos Aires 10 hours a day, five days a week. Her monthly take-home pay is 4,000 pesos. According to Fide, the cost of a monthly family budget at the beginning of April was more than 13,000 pesos.

Rosa's son, Manuel, is a policeman and earns only 5,000 pesos. With that, he must support two children and a wife.

In order to survive, the Martinezes, like many Argentine working-class families, have become their own economic ministers, carefully checking their spending and cutting corners when possible.

Both Rosa and Manuel's wife have an informal credit account at the small food stall near their home. Bills hurriedly scribbled by the stall owner provide a breathing space of a week, two weeks, usually a month, by which time the real value of the debt has been wiped out by inflation anyway.

''I have to give them credit. Otherwise nobody would buy anything and I would have to close shop,'' says the stall owner.

The explanation oversimplifies the price distortions and hoarding that occur because of the multiplication of retail outlets and the unpoliced activities of middlemen defying the price controls.

On the clothes front, Rosa is equally open to leftovers. The young owner of one of the houses she works in occasionally gives her worn shoes and pullovers with holes - a piece of charity which obviates any additional purchases.

''When you're trying to find the money to eat, there's not much time to worry about the clothes you wear,'' says Rosa.

Higher up the social scale, an upper-middle-class couple we shall call Hugo and Patricia are presented with a wider and more complex range of ''life savers'' for dealing with inflation.

''The majority of survival techniques are devious and speculative and would take me at least a month to fully explain to you. But it takes an imaginative mind to keep oneself afloat,'' says Hugo. He should know. He's a banker.

Exchange controls and heavily regulated interest rates mean that on the surface, at least, opportunities for speculating in hot money are not as great as they were in the free-market heyday of military regime circa 1980. But as a confirmed monetarist, Hugo insists that it is precisely because of government controls that business is having to cut corners.

Hugo earns 15 times more than Rosa and thus has much more of a head start in trying to secure his savings. He can put his money into a deposit account linked to inflation or risk his capital on the local stock exchange. Patricia, meanwhile, uses a credit card for her food shopping, timing her purchases so that the bill will not reach her bank account for a month.

This is all strictly above board. Many of Hugo's friends go in for more dubious survival techniques. Over-invoicing and under-invoicing through the dexterous manipulation of the black-market exchange rate. Borrowing and lending at ''black'' interest rates outside the official banking circuit are among the more popular techniques of the business class.

But perhaps the easiest fortunes to be had are in bank accounts opened by Argentines in countries like Switzerland and Uruguay. Hugo calculates that if a person's money is among the some $20 billion believed to have fled the country in recent years, then he or she can probably survive just on the interest.

''It's the subterranean world of dubious speculation that keeps this country going,'' says Hugo.

Last week, top presidential adviser German Lopez lashed out publicly at bankers and businessmen he claimed were dealing with money and making no effort to turn it into productive investment. The outburst seemed to many a belated recognition that the highly principled government may have seriously overestimated the morality of many Argentines when it promised last December to put the country back on its feet.

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