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.



Words for everyone

May 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Buenos Aires is a city where words don’t stay in books or magazines. Slogans are graffitied on every street, from the Cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo to the back alleys of Constitución. Most are to do with football (‘Con River no se jode’, ‘San Telmo es de Boca’) or politics (‘Néstor vive’, ‘Basta de perseguir a Quebracho’). 

The defining line between the two is not particularly clear. In fact, after nearly ten months living here I’m still amazed by how quickly politics (and, inevitably, the president) become a part of almost any discussion. 

The latent presence of politics is so strong that some words or phrases are, for me at least, irretrievably associated with an idea or a person. One example would be the phrase ‘para todos’ (for everyone), which after a succession of government programmes (fútbol para todos, carne para todos) always makes me expect a new state initiative. After football and meat, what will be next? A quick Google search tells me that ‘fish for everyone’ is already in existence. 

This sort of political penetration reaches even more basic levels of language. I’ve never conducted this experiment, but I’d be willing to bet that if you asked an average Argentine the question: ‘Quién es “él”?’ (Who is ‘he’?), the answer would come quite easily: Néstor Kirchner. I’ve written here before about how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner effectively invokes the memory of her dead husband without naming him, turning him into a powerful symbol for the successes of his (and her) administration. The comments on that post also show, incidentally, how complex politics in Argentina is.

Still, what I want to get at is the high level of consciousness here of the complex links between politics and language. I wonder whether an analysis like this one of the ‘philosophy of language’ of a political leader would make it into the opinion pages of a leading UK newspaper. 

I suspect that, at heart, this is nothing new. The novel I’m reading at the moment, Sobre héroes y tumbas by Ernesto Sábato, shows how the politics and history of identity can become tied up in language here.

But the linked article, by Beatriz Sarlo, makes an important point: the refusal of the president to admit questions in press conferences, along with the fact that almost no one else from her government speaks publicly, suggests a controlling attitude to discourse. 

An environment where the president’s is practically the only voice – and where all major announcements are transmitted simultaneously on all TV channels – allows the creation of a powerful political narrative. ‘Debate’ is not recognised by the government – as Sarlo says, ‘every contradiction becomes an attack, and every attack becomes personal’. Opposition media commentators are often dismissed as puppets of their evil corporate bosses. 

This is canny strategy, for sure.  But I’m not convinced that it guarantees the best solutions to Argentina’s problems.

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