“Macri Eat #@%!”
It was a typical lunch break during the first week. Myself and another guy in the program were out for lunch when we began to hear a growing drumbeat. Outside the restaurant window we could see traffic come to standstill, before the cars and busses started making U-turns. Once outside, we saw what was holding up traffic: a massive crowd holding blue and white flags, banging drums, and chanting slogans. A minute later, half a dozen policemen arrived on motorcycles. We were only ten feet away so we could hear arguing on both sides when suddenly we jumped at the sound of a gun going off- one of the officers had fired his pistol in the air. We both scrambled away down a side street, also now crowded with traffic trying to escape the turmoil. When we got back to Avenida 9 de Julio, we were stunned at the sight of thousands of protesters holding large blue and white banners in the center of the avenue. This wasn’t just a small scuffle; this was a full-on protest. Later I confirmed with one of the IFSA directors that they were indeed supporters of the previous president Christina Fernandez Kirchner. This wasn’t the first large-scale manifestacion since the current president Mauricio Marci took power in December, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
I had read soo many books, articles, blogs and news reports about Argentina and most of them contained a few common words: dysfunctional, prideful, identity crisis, fragile. Yet it’s their historical rollercoaster ride that was one of the reasons I chose to come here- a country that was the 7th richest country in the world a hundred years ago! It is also fascinating how much Argentina has mirrored the United States. Both had civil wars over centralized vs decentralized governments. Both were breadbaskets of the world, and both benefited by periods of European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, redefining what it meant to be a citizen of their respective countries. On the flip side, both systematically wiped out the indigenous people within their borders and both developed superiority complexes in relation to their neighbors.
After decades of prosperity, Argentina eventually succumbed to many of the same problems ubiquitous to the rest of Latin America. The Great Depression was the first blow, leading the military to seize power. Through the populism of the Perón era (think the ever present Evitaaa) to brief moments of legitimate democracy, the military was always behind the scenes ready to wipe a clean slate if policies became too liberal. The last, and most deadly, military dictatorship lasted from 1976-1983 when thousands of leftists, either real or suspected, “disappeared”. To this day, Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo hold demonstrations every Thursday to raise awareness of their stolen children and grandchildren. Democracy was fully restored in 1983, yet years of financial mismanagement left the economy on shaky ground. Inflation became a daily fixture of everyday life, and a series of privatization and dollarization schemes dumped thousands into poverty. Anger finally boiled over in December 2001 when people of all social classes rioted in Buenos Aires and turmoil ensued. Argentina defaulted on its debt, the largest default at that time until Greece. This was definitely the low point.
While the economy has improved since then, it remains extremely fragile, something I’ve observed quite frequently. Marta showed me an independent cambio exchange where I convert my U.S. dollars- $100 at a time, since banks are generally distrusted. At restaurants, I’ve noticed many of the prices are written in pencil-easily erasable as soon as prices increase. Graffiti covers the city’s European styled buildings, making it is especially eerie at night when all the shops are shuttered, leaving streets lined with graffiti marked mental doors. Policemen, official or plain clothed, stand outside many stores to prevent theft. Petty theft is a huge problem- already five people in our program have been robbed, leaving the rest of us very much paranoid with our belongings during the first few weeks. Physical cash is very much preferred, as well as exact change. I’ve received so many annoyed looks when I tried paying with a 100 peso bill- stores can literally risk run out of small currencies. When Uber tried to establish itself in the country, the city’s taxi drivers went nuts. I’ve seen so many “FUERA UBER” stickers of the back of taxis since. Beef and wine, once the typical dinner table staples, are not as common nowadays.
Many Argentines would like to think of themselves as part of another European country, or generally better than their neighbors, especially with the dominant eurocentric identity. It’s no wonder Argentines are stereotypically seen as pretentious and arrogant. More often it’s a coping mechanism to forget their lowered status in society and the world. It’s interesting though comparing Argentina at this moment compared to the rest of the continent. 2016 has seen Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador among other countries marred by crises, while here there is a new president working to enact real change. Yet Macri’s election itself was only possible because of a run off election in November, so he doesn’t exactly have a powerful mandate to change direction. I’ve lost track of the number “Macri eat shit” or “Macri is only for the rich” graffiti around town. Being here the last two weeks has made it even more clear the pain in Argentine society- there is a potential for change, yet there is also a desire to return to a long gone past. Like I stated before, there’s a reason many Argentines don’t take much for granted.