Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a weekly column, Foreign Correspondents, that will chronicle Middlebury students’ experiences studying abroad.
About seven weeks into my study abroad program, I received a WhatsApp message from my tutora, an Argentine girl from my university who had been assigned to help me and another exchange student get adjusted to life in Buenos Aires. Usually she texted in the group to invite us out to eat or to answer our questions about matters lost in translation. Today’s message was more serious.
“Well ladies,” she said. “You are witnessing the fall of Argentina.”
She was referencing the massive economic crisis that has hit Argentina, resulting from the country’s potential inability to pay its IMF debts and causing the Argentine peso to devalue at a staggering rate. Though my tutora’s tone may sound dramatic, the Argentine people are all too aware of what can happen in the face of fiscal disaster. During the 1970s and ’80s, in one of the most horrible periods of Latin American history, dictatorships in Argentina and its neighboring countries repressed, terrorized and assassinated thousands of civilians who opposed their neo-liberal economic policies. More recently, during the 2001 crisis, the entire government quit in one day, the country had five presidents in the span of one week and 36 people died.
Argentina’s history of turmoil remains fresh in the minds of most, and the mistakes and consequences of that past serve as constant warnings of what could transpire in the near future. The country regularly cycles through economic and political crisis and prosperity, and citizens fear a return to the nefarious governments of old. Some believe the current administration is headed in an authoritarian direction, and there are rumors that the president, Mauricio Macri, will resign, in which case the country would hold a special election to find a new head of state.
From a political science standpoint, this is an incredibly exciting time to be here. From any other angle, this is a quilombo of epic proportions. (I can’t tell you what quilombo means here, but a quick Urban-Dictionary search can.)
At Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, where I’m taking classes, it can be easy to forget about the crisis. Di Tella is a private institution, and though its tuition is considerably lower than tuition at any US university – roughly equivalent to about $3,000 a semester – public college here is free (and very reputable). Most students at Di Tella come from higher-than-average income brackets, and the wealth on campus is anything but subtle. Back in July, when I first entered the glossy, modern building that houses the school’s classrooms, three (!) restaurants and panoramic rooftop terrace, I was stunned by the sea of chic black turtlenecks, cool leather boots and iPhone X’s that assembled in the main lobby between classes, chatting over yerba mate and espresso from the French-themed café next door. Many of the students I have talked to live in gated communities in the provincia right outside the city and have traveled to more states than I have, an emblem of wealth considering the steep peso-dollar exchange rate.
Which is not to say that people at Di Tella are not talking about the crisis or that it is not going to affect them, because they are and it will. But everywhere else, it’s all people talk about. It’s all over the newspapers, and it’s the topic of most conversations I overhear on the subway. It’s the subject of every news program at the radio station where I’m interning, a community-based and politically-minded operation located in the back of a bar. Their slogan: “Sin aire no hay fuego.” Without air there is no fire.
My host mom, Sofi, thinks there are more homeless people on the street now than there have been in a long time. We’ve talked a lot about the crisis at home. Sofi is fortunate enough to have her own apartment and the means to get by, but the crisis sends shockwaves through her life just the same. She’s an artist, and in the last week has been working in her workshop day and night while blasting notícias (news) and Luis Miguel songs to create small hand-painted resin figurines that will be presented as awards for the winners of an upcoming film festival. Sofi signed onto the job months ago, and with the devaluation of the peso, the compensation she will receive is now worth almost nothing. It is as though she is working for free, she laments.
Sofi, like most others, is also worried about how the crisis will affect the cost of food and other necessities. She expects that the hefty inflation that menacingly lurks around the corner will cause prices to raise as salaries remain the same. A few days ago she stocked up on months’ worth of cat food, just in case. I did the same with bread and milk.
For now, prices remain relatively low, stirring up a confusing mix of emotions for us exchange students. I feel guilty for feeling any excitement about the relative ascendance of the dollar, but it’s hard not to be at least a little delighted by the new exchange rates – a month ago I converted Argentine prices to their dollar equivalents by dividing by 27, whereas now I divide by nearly 40. A $3 coffee becomes a $2 coffee. An already incredibly-cheap subway ride now costs only a quarter.
But of course, to solely rejoice in the economic turmoil of the country is myopic and apathetic toward the thousands who are suffering and mobilizing, the latter of which Argentinians do exceptionally well. As Sofi would say, there are many temas picantes – loosely translating to “hot topics” – that have the Argentines fired up. One of my first days in Buenos Aires, Sofi – a self-described “anarquista” who preferred the previous, more populist government and openly detests the conservative Macri – attended a march against the current administration’s increasingly militarized presence in the city. About three weeks later, we marched together among thousands of our fellow porteños in favor of a bill that would have legalized abortion, under certain conditions, throughout the country. We stood in front of the capital building in the pouring rain, waving the green pañuelo, symbol of the movement, and chanted with fervor about our hopes for a more feminist Latin America. Though senators voted narrowly to keep abortion illegal in the majority-Catholic country, abortion advocates speculate that the bill will pass next year.
Teachers from Argentina’s public universities are also mobilizing in protest of the low salary hikes the government has promised them in the face of severe inflation. As a result, many students are yet to begin classes at the University of Buenos Aires and other public institutions, though the semester technically began in early August. Teachers have reportedly come to an agreement on the issue, but in this political climate, nothing is certain.
The increasing number of protests and strikes are testament to the country’s great political divide. And with people from each side of the ideological spectrum espousing flagrant things about the other, it can be difficult to orient myself politically. My current strategy has been to listen to anyone who has something to say, and I’ve found no shortage of conversational partners – some of my most animated political chats have been in taxis or with cashiers at street kiosks. The people of Buenos Aires are passionate and open and kind, and they are invigorated rather than dejected by the need for change. The city buzzes with an electrifying energy. It is truly thrilling, and somewhat unnerving.
It is also a lot to digest. On one of the first days I was here, our academic programs coordinator told us that we don’t need to come to any conclusions now. Conclusions come later, he said. For now, just soak everything in.
Sabine Poux is a member of the Middlebury College class of 2020 and is studing in Buenos Aires this semester. She will be a news editor for the Campus in the spring of 2019.