Lessons from Argentina: Everything will be okay

A strike significant enough to shut down the subway in the nation’s largest city would worry Americans (or should I say the people of the United States, since, after all, Argentines consider themselves to be Americans as well). Yet in Buenos Aires, the magically chaotic capital city of Argentina, a major strike causing the Subte (the Buenos Aires subway) to close for six entire days provoked little concern. There, todo está bien—it’s all good.

This was the condition of Buenos Aires when I moved into my apartment in mid-July. As people could not get to work and students could not to get to class, the streets filled with people enjoying what seemed to be much-needed days off. The responsibility of fixing the wage conflict to get the subway workers back to work was merely a concern of the government and something its constituency did not greatly concern itself with.

Living and studying in Buenos Aires for five months completely changed my perspective on the political system of the United States. During my second week living in my home stay, as I was walking home from class one afternoon, cars started incessantly honking their horns in synchronization and people emerged from their apartment windows banging on pots and pans. Walking in the door of my apartment, my host mom handed me a pot and a wooden spoon and herded me out to the balcony of the apartment. We proceeded to laugh and scream, simultaneously banging on pots and exchanging gleeful glances with the other people in our building and on the street doing the same thing. Our building even managed to make a beat out of it, alternating which floor banged its pots when.

I had participated in my first cacerolazo. In order to protest the policies of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, or CFK as she is commonly called, middle class Argentines refuse to listen to her speeches; instead, they bang on pots, honk their horns and scream in unison to avoid hearing what she has to say.

This form of protest struck me as extremely confusing. How can you hope to change  what President Fernandez de Kirchner is doing if you do not first know what she is implementing? How can you work with the “enemy” without first listening to them?

With my interest in politics, I completed my first oral presentation in my Spanish class on the presidency of Argentina, comparing it with that of President Obama. Argentina historically has had an authoritative and controlling head of state. The Argentine president can implement her own legislation in the absence of any existing technicality granting her legal authority to write legislation.

The president can issue executive documents that, on paper, sound similar to the Executive Orders of the President of the United States. These decretos de necesidad y urgenica, or DNUs as they are more commonly referred, are executive documents with the force of law for a limited period of time. An amendment to the Constitution of Argentina in 1994 legalized DNUs. As the name implies, they are to be used only in extreme circumstances, out of necesidad (necessity) and urgencia (urgency), and only when a matter is so time-sensitive that it cannot be taken through the normal route of a law through Congress. Until 2006, the President of Argentina could issue DNUs without the presence of any legislative controls. Due to modifications to this law in 2006, both chambers of the legislature, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, must now approve or reject any DNUs of the president within 10 days; however, during this period the DNU is enforced. More importantly, an existing exception in the law requires that any existing DNU that offers new rights to a section of the population may not be rejected or removed from the law. Additionally, the role of bribery on the part of the president often taints the legislative process. In 2008, President Fernandez de Kirchner issued a DNU to increase the size of the budget by $11.6 billion, claiming legality and validation for this DNU given the pending possibility of a financial emergency. No emergency existed, besides the lack of adequate funds left in the budget to allow for functionality of the government, yet the decree is still in place today.

Why is President Fernandez de Kirchner not held accountable for her actions? Why is no one questioning the legality of her budget increase?

As I got settled in Buenos Aires, I also quickly learned about the Central Bank of Argentina’s ban on the purchase of U.S. dollars that was part of an effort led by President Fernandez de Kirchner. No matter what ATM or currency exchange place you go to, it is impossible to withdraw any form of U.S. dollar in Argentina. The government implemented the policy in order to protect its foreign reserves and pay off its growing debts in an effort to avoid addressing its rampant inflation. The only people in Argentina able to buy foreign currency must get permission from the national tax agency first and, moreover, must spend their dollars while traveling outside of Argentina. While a ban on the world’s predominant currency may seem perplexing, what’s even more surprising is the nonchalant attitude toward the black market that has developed since the ban. A black market for the U.S. dollar has exploded in the past six months. While the ATMS only offer $4.50 pesos for $1 USD, rates in the black market, referred to as “dólar blue” in Buenos Aires, have reached levels of $6.80 pesos for $1 USD. Shockingly, this illegal market is in no way hidden. Newspapers daily publish rates of the dólar blue market. Websites such as Xoom.com allow for constituents to place an order for the conversion of U.S. dollars to pesos at the black market rate, picking up the pesos at a series of unmarked buildings spread out every few miles. I would know—I myself was an avid customer. Bars even post signs next to the cash registers offering reputable exchange rates of $5.25 pesos for $1 USD. The government makes no effort to combat this black market activity, and it is not concealed whatsoever.

Again, I found myself asking, “Why is this allowed?” What is being done to actively fix the currency valuation problem?

Six months later, I am now repeating the same phrase my host mom would use to respond to my never-ending string of political questions: tranquilo. This phrase, which directly translates to “quiet” or “calm” has the same connotation in the Buenos Aires lunfardo (slang), as an offhanded, laid-back command of “Relax!”

Returning to the United States, I can’t help but be comforted by the Argentine acceptance of tranquilo. While every controversy in the United States political realm seems like the end of the world to politicians, the media, and engaged college students, at the end of the day the problem will most likely work itself out. In Argentina, questions regarding policy decisions and even protests go unacknowledged. It has reached such an extreme that Argentine citizens now protest merely to express their discontent, not sure of exactly where to begin. Focusing in on a single problem would simply be too narrowing.

There are problems, but the government still runs on a day-to-day basis. Buenos Aires is still one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and even one of the 10 happiest places to live in the world, according to a recent survey by Fast Company. The tranquilo response to political problems has permanently changed my mentality.  It’s impossible to explain away or fix every political problem that pops up. While it’s important to question decisions, at the end of the day, have faith in the system and relax. Everything will be okay. Todo está bien.

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