Argentina in Ruins...and Resisting
Jim Harney

I struggle to develop a spirituality, politics and economics that does justice to the Argentines I met in a six-week trip that ended in mid-December 2003. I saw Argentines “living amid the ruins” of an economic model that collapsed and hurled most of the country into unheard of poverty – overnight.
They are dealing with powerful financial institutions like Citigroup, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. A key Argentine paper, Pagina 12, says that Citigroup is pulling out of advising the Argentine government on its $140 billion debt-trap. It and the other major banks have abandoned ship as Argentina tries to deal with a debt that Catholic Bishops call a tombstone.

I marched with piqueteros as they demanded real work, rather than having to survive in the mercado negro, the informal sector where most of the people endure life. The piqueteros blocked traffic in Buenos Aires at a time when US-born billionaire financier Kenneth Dart sits in a lavish home in the Caymen Islands. With every 37 days that pass he augments his wealth by $170,462.79 on interest he gets from the $725 million that Argentina owes him.

In the backdrop of Dart’s fortune are the cartoneros, the poor scavenging throughout Buenos Aires to put bread and butter on the table. Half of Argentina lives in poverty; 20% of Buenos Aires makes less than a dollar a day.

Dart makes his money from “derivatives,” a kind of financial instrument. Via his computer Dart calculates when it’s time to buy and sell money or go with futures, or debt, or mortgages. Derivatives make it impossible for governments to plan their economies with the poor in mind. They are the trump card in a global economy – better, they are financial weapons of mass destruction.

The Economist, a British magazine, defines derivatives as “financial contracts – such as futures options and swaps – derived from the prices of other securities.” Argentina and Brazil are offering swaps: buy up debt and help with education. It’s a form of privatization. Presidents Lula of Brazil and Kirchner of Argentina favor the idea.

On the other hand, Kirchner is reclaiming the post office. Recently he booted out a French military industrial complex firm, the second largest in the world: he didn’t want them controlling Argentina’s airwaves and telecommunications. Investors, however, don’t like such action. They’d much prefer that Kirchner privatize with the same enthusiasm Menem did – Menem, the president who ruled the country for most of the ‘90s. Menem sold over 400 companies at garage sale prices to transnationals. Goldman Sachs made big money off of such sales and leads the pack in earnings from privatizations.

Kirchner refuses to bow to IMF pressure to let utilities raise rates. He’s gone against market wisdom by increasing the minimum wage. He has investment firms reeling thanks to his commitment not to pay 75% of the private debt (mostly to Italian and German banks). Kirchner even has the Argentine business community behind him on that one. Meanwhile Argentine kids continue to die from malnutrition in a country capable of feeding Europe five times over and Japan, with its diet, ten times.

Is it any wonder that Kirchner could look Bush square in the face and say that to return to the free-market model of the eighties, and especially the nineties, would be like returning to hell?

I saw some of the hell, and I’ll never be the same again. I saw middle class people enraged at losing their homes. One guy told me his $250,000 home is now empty because he couldn’t pay the mortgage that increased three times over when the dollar was taken off par with the peso, and he had to pay in dollars. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me, the way he spoke, his grimaces as he tried to come up with language to talk to one who comes from the nation that put in place so much of the pestilence he now must deal with.

The pestilence: so much of it churns within the service sector. It’s where the juices of wealth accumulation ferment. It’s what trade agreements are about: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) favor the movement of money around the world. What a privilege I had to go where capital steers clear of – the slums – and to hang out with the cartoneros, attend a celebration in a dump and see smiles, hear language cranking that has hope compressed into it and the organizing challenges that go along with it.

In Argentina people sing a song that says, “I ask God that I might not be indifferent to injustice.” They sing it, but more importantly they live it. They taught me a lot.

Jim showed his exceptional slides at Le Moyne this past February. For years Jim and his camera have gone where the poor are oppressed by the rich throughout Latin America. He can be reached at <jimharney@posibilidad.org>. Posibilidad, among other things, is the Bangor-based vehicle for supporting Jim’s work. To learn more, check out <www.posibilidad.org>.