BUENOS AIRES – We Argentines begin 2020 burdened by the economic crisis, one of those that mark our decades.
"He who burned with milk sees a cow and cries," we say here. We Argentines have a dramatic national temperament but our fears of an unstable economy are fundamental. Every price increase, market tremor or tax announcement, every social protest and evidence of the growing poverty, it refers us in some way to the “corralito” of 2001. Or further back: the hyperinflation of 1989 or the massive economic adjustment of 1975. These economic crises caused a severe social discontent that ended up reordering Argentine life and its accumulation over time. It has left us with a kind of post-traumatic syndrome and the feeling of being trapped in an eternal return.
The day after the primary election which indicated that Mauricio Macri would not be reelected in October 2019, soared a dramatic devaluation of the weight pushed by the frantic purchase of dollars to guard against instability. When shortly thereafter exchange controls were announced to stop financial bleeding, people started to line up in the banks to get all your savings, such as during the yard, when withdrawals were limited and the content of the accounts was devalued.
Those memories are still in full bloom in my country. Our history has taught us to live in a nation with a permanently weak currency, minimal faith in banks and savings plans that consist of hiding cash in the furniture of our homes ("under the mattress").
Crises affect each social class differently. The poor struggle to eat and sleep under a roof. The middle class juggles to maintain its precarious economic position. The rich are bitter at the losses while the speculators demonstrate their amazing talent for finding lucrative slits in monetary controls. We all, however, share a sense of madness. We build our lives on quicksand.
Those who were children when you had to run in supermarkets to beat the increases in 1989 and teenagers in bankruptcies and cacerolazos at the beginning of this century, we have already gone through two baptisms of fire to reach adulthood.
And everything indicates that in 2020 we could face a new great crisis. Last year, inflation exceeded 50 percent, we have debts for more than 100,000 million dollars. Poverty passed 40 percent. We produce food for 440 million people, but 22 percent of the 40 million Argentines suffer from "food insecurity."
But as a new government began in the Casa Rosada, there has been a hope that perhaps we will be able to avoid the cyclical economic catastrophe that has marked our lives and national history.
With just two months in office, the new president Alberto Fernández is still on a honeymoon with the Argentines, but he knows that grace period will last shortly. Therefore, it has begun by taking measures to address the malaise and prevent a social outbreak.
The Fernández government proposes austere budgetary policies that convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it is convenient to defer debt payments, control inflation with price agreements in certain areas and increase the taxes of the wealthiest sectors to pay for the programs social desperately needed.
Fernández defends the fiscal balance, but with social awareness. His vision is that an extension in debt payments, austerity in public spending and internal incentives will help leverage economic growth.
Economists have their academic technicalities to explain the evils that afflict us forever. Instead of complex terms, Fernández invokes the will in the face of the culture of the economic crisis. We are a country of amateur economists, we understand immediately when the president talks about "Self-built inflation" as the practice of raising prices to protect against the increases of others. Fernández calls to collaborate in what he calls the "social pact", a sort of collective decision to fight against the economic crisis.
The history of economic crises Argentina is long standing. Start with the so-called Panic of 1890, in which English speculative investment created a financial bubble and led the country to cease payments for a few years. From then on, it is all history of unpayable debt, weak currency and promises that with national industry or austerity it would leave the well. So much so that some observe that, since the 1970s, Argentines have always demanded the same from new governments: revive the economy and lower the dollar and inflation.
Can Fernández change this course and curb the economic ills that afflict us for decades with good intentions and willpower?
The feeling of being caught in a spiral of infinite and chaotic increases helps to understand why this government has promoted agreements to freeze food prices. It has also relaunched the citizen monitoring initiative of the prices agreed with supermarkets.
The mobile application To check prices and inform those who leave the agreed framework is among the lowest since it was launched. Municipal authorities demonstrate the new awareness and are photographed in supermarkets, forming the first line of control against speculative inflation. The government announced that will train retirees to go armed with their phones to check that the prices in the gondolas are correct. These economic measures seek to curb inflation and price escalation, but they also have a psychological purpose: to give us the possibility of doing something concrete to defend ourselves from chaos and the crisis that always threatens.
For now there is calm. Fernandez is careful with what he says. His talent has always been to weave agreements between different sectors and he repeats until the fatigue that the most poor have priority. Price controls, direct food subsidies for the poorest people that they have put into practice are tied with wire, but they aim to contain frustrations in a situation that is not going to improve soon.
We are in suspense, waiting by the abyss. In spite of everything, there is will and hope. The million dollar question is whether that will be enough to get out of the eternal return.
Jordana Timerman is an Argentine journalist and editor of the Latin American Daily Briefing.