By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)
Chaos and turmoil reign in Argentina now and nobody knows just what wicked something may be coming next. Two weeks ago the government of Christina Fernandez Kirchner increased taxes on agricultural products (in simpler terms, *food*) to 44% of their value. Farmers throughout the country are refusing to ship their harvests and ranchers are withholding their livestock. Supporters of the rural rebellion have blockaded many major highways of the country, turning back the few trucks brave or foolhardy enough to try to deliver foodstuffs to Buenos Aires, the capital. Not only is the food supply cut off but the blockades create huge traffic jams along all the routes leading to Buenos Aires. As we say here, "¡Que quilombo! (what a mess)".
Within the city, protesters against the government have formed nightly parades of cacerolazos, people who march in the streets or public plazas banging pots and pans (cacerolas) to call attention to their grievances. It's the first time since the economic meltdown of 2000-2001 that this form of popular protest has been seen in the capital, so I'd say it's a good bet this is getting serious. Argentina, famed throughout the world of its cattle, finds its stores empty of beef and dairy products. Also dwindling in supply are wheat, bread, pasta, cooking oil, chicken, eggs, and many other basics.
Like most other people, I headed out to shop a couple of days ago, attempting to stock up on essentials before the stores are completely empty. I already knew I wouldn't find any beef but we mostly eat chicken anyway so I wasn't dismayed by the vacant display cases. Fortunately, by visiting two markets, I was able to secure a good supply of bread, milk, and other items so I think Luciano and I will do fine for at least a week before we start living on a more boring diet of pasta and rice or something similar. Hopefully the government and the farmers will start talking instead of yelling and reach some kind of accomodation soon.
I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of Argentine politics but clearly there are fundamental problems here. Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world in area and a vast amount of its land is ideal for ranching and farming. For many years, in the 1800's and early 1900's, it was the biggest beef producer as well as one of the world's top suppliers of grains and other agricultural products. With only 40 million people in a land one-third the size of the United States (and 14 million of those living in the capital), my guess is there is a lot of available terrain for increased agriculture. However, the news reports here have said that cattle production has decreased by 25% during the last 30 years. I find it hard to believe that Argentina isn't expanding its production, utilizing its natural resources better, and augmenting the public and private economies. There's so much potential in this amazing land but little promise of ever fulfilling it.
One of the most obvious reasons is the stultifying bureaucracy. Luciano and I often joke about how if we want to buy a new toothbrush or take a walk in a park, we'd better have our official ID's handy, several forms in triplicate and notarized, and a few days to repeatedly visit government offices to get the requisite permissions. It's not quite that bad but it's not a huge exaggeration either. For example, to buy a car in the US you walk into a dealer, plunk down your money, and within an hour you can be driving your new gas-guzzler home. Here, you plunk down your money, fill out reams of papers...and then wait 2 to 3 months to get your car. There's no temporary operating permit like we have in the States, the dealer has to send all of the paperwork to the government and after a couple of months of grinding its way through the system, a valid registration is issued and the buyer can finally have his/her vehicle. The same thing applies to private party sales of used vehicles so no matter what you buy, you'd best plan to wait a couple of months before you ever take possession of it.
Another example is the process of renting an apartment. One can't simply fill out an application, pay a couple of months equivalent of rent as a deposit, and move in. No, you have to submit a garantia. This is a legal document, similar to a lien, in which the owner of a property of equal or greater value than the apartment you want to rent promises his property as security against damages or failure to pay the rent. So, how many of you renters out there could find someone who would volunteer a lien against his home so you could rent an apartment? But wait, it gets better. It can't just be a friend, it has to be a close personal relative such as parent, child, brother or grandparent. Your field of choices just got narrower, right? We're still not done yet! The guaranteed property also has to be in the capital so your relative's home in another city or province won't be accepted. Now imagine that your parents and grandparents have already provided the garantia for your brothers, sisters, or cousins (it can only be used up to the value of the property being pledged). How will you ever rent your own place? Life for the poor and middle class here can be exhausting because it seems difficult to ever truly get ahead.
You can imagine how other procedures and requirements of business and daily life are comparable. With that in mind, it's not hard to understand why Argentina is mired in between slow growth and stagnation. Yet no one seems to want to change the system. I believe that until it does change, Argentina is going to remain stuck and never achieve what it should.
On a cheerier note, here are some snaps we took of guys during our time in Salta, Jujuy, and Cordoba. The quality often isn't great because we were trying to do it covertly, shooting on the spur of the moment from quite a distance away. But it should still give you an idea of how the lads of Argentina look. In my next post, I'll write about our time in Cordoba, with another slideshow.