Green silver

June 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

While the Eurozone is consumed by worry and gloom over the fate of its own currency, Buenos Aires’ middle class is expending a lot of energy protesting about someone else’s.

The protagonists of the ‘cacerolazos’ (pot-banging protests) of the last two weeks haven’t shown much concern about the strength of the Argentine peso – none of them really takes it seriously. What bother them are the ever-increasing barriers between them and their beloved greenbacks.

Since November of last year, the Argentine government has made it pretty difficult (now virtually impossible) to buy US dollars at the ‘official rate of around 4.5 pesos, set by the central bank. Why is this such a big deal? Well, because many Argentines, including the president and virtually every member of her cabinet, reckon the North American currency is a safer bet for their savings than the peso.

What’s more, many high-value transactions (like the sale of real estate) are always carried out in dollars, and in cash. (Just to make things clear, there is legislation currently in Congress which will likely change this, and the president’s declared her intention to switch her three million dollars of savings to pesos).

And why the restrictions? There hasn’t been any official explanation, but they’re generally seen as an attempt to stem the flight of capital from the country, which reached the hundreds of billions of dollars in 2011.

I have to admit that I continue to be somewhat bemused by all of this. The way Argentina works really has little to do with what us we citizens of the Old World are used to, despite the endless comparisons with Europe. One thing that stands out, though, is just how different people’s relationship with money is.

That last statement probably sounds so general as to be meaningless. So here are couple of examples: in Buenos Aires you can buy a toaster worth 28€ in 12 monthly payments, or a 38€ iron in six. Spending is made to seem as attractive, and cost-free, as possible. Saving is not the order of the day (week/month/year).

When people do save, it tends to be in their ‘colchón’ (mattress), a word which sometimes has its literal meaning, and sometimes functions as a metonym for any number of household objects. There’s a story about a woman who kept thousands of dollars in a flowerpot on her balcony, and many others about people hiding safes behind plug sockets, under floorboards or buried in the garden.

It would be hard to blame the Argentines for their preference for hard currency. After all, the 2001 economic crisis gave them good reason to distrust the banks.

It’s just striking that all this goes on in a country named after a mythical source of of silver, lusted after by the Spanish conquistadors. With money such a visible and polemical element of daily life, Argentina lives up to its etymology.

 

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