*Argentine Revolution and Middle Class Destruction*
Buenos Aires, Argentina - 2 a.m., Christmas Vacation 2001.
The clanging din of metal spoons striking against the pot and pan bottoms awakened me from an otherwise fine and restful sleep. With just a bit of jet lag my family and I - three children and my half-Argentine wife - had flown into BA Aeropuerto the prior day for a leisurely (pronounced "lezurely" in the UK, where we were living at the time) holiday in the warmer South American climate. "Warm" was an understatement, as we were soon to learn.
The next morning after eating a breakfast of the typical croissants and choking down a cup of double-strength coffee I asked what the early morning ruckus had been about. All the talk was politics, politics - even more than usual, because unlike in the US politics is discussed every day, all the time at least among the men. There was the usual amount of complaining about how bad things were, but the people conversed with sophistication far beyond the sloganeering of North American political engineering. I'm an early riser, and even without my wife to translate I could understand with my Midwestern Spanish that for the first time in history the middle class was under strong attack from the latest corrupt, incompetent government - and all the noise of the prior night was from the latest demonstrations by middle class women, to try to get their voices heard that if all their families money is taken away to pay for the benefit of the underclass, who will then pay for the upkeep of their own families? And of course, the presidential partying must go on and on...
Little did we know that we had landed on a powder keg waiting to explode. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city - kind of like the eastern US and southern Europe in which everyone lives in small buildings, with local delis, mercados and shops that the citizenry can walk to on a daily basis. The well-to-do live uptown, and in BA the outlying areas are the poorer areas. Already we were seeing on the news stories of food riots and deaths in some of the outlying places.
Believe it or not, and contrary to North American stereotypes, Argentina is the home of some of the most educated people on the planet - talk to a cabbie some time and see what his real degree is in. And, some of the most attractive women an American guy could imagine, if I do say so my very biased self. However, the point being that for all that the story of Argentina is one of corruption on a scale unknown in the US until recently, with emotion taking precedence over all that European-based education and sophistication.
Using the city-wide subway we have taken the kids to a lovely park and are returning to our hotel near the "Obelisco" which is a Washington-monument looking thingy located in the middle of a 12-or-more lane boulevard that takes forever to walk across - especially pushing a baby buggy - or "pram" as we used to call it. We get to our stop. We detrain and prepare to exit at our subway stop a few blocks from our hotel, and I see concerned faces walking quickly down the station steps....and nobody going up. I smell something funny. A man says to me something to the effect of, "Don't go up there, they are fighting..." and I ask my wife what another word means...and she says "tear gas." While my family waits on the platform next to the tracks, I walk up the stairs while my eyes start to burn. The closer to the exit I get I hear sirens, "boom, boom" and sounds I cannot describe. As my line of sight clears the opening into the outside word I behold a seen from hell. As my jaw drops I see a roiling black and gray cloud making its way towards us between the narrow gap between the city buildings. Taxi cabs drive into and out of the smoke. Cars marked "Policia" and law enforcement "motocicletas" scurry to and fro. All the while there is the "BOOM" of incendiaries and tear gas grenades resonating only a block and a half away, and I can hear other explosions and sirens farther off.
I race down the subway to my family with an "OH CACA" look on my face. We exit on the other side of the street and we quick march-run back in the direction to our hotel. All the metal shutters are closed on every local business. Someone sees us - an attorney. He opens his office door and we race inside. He has his driver, who knows all the alleyways, get us back to our hotel. We dodge the riots and arrive at our hotel. Not so reassuring - the hotel has big glass doors, and every piece of lobby furniture is being shoved up against them. They let us in. They turn out the hotel lights and remake the barricade.
We are on the third floor - not high enough, but we have a basic plan, and we have every semi-sharp knife and stick we can find in case there is a breach. We wait, and the time is just after noon. At about 1 pm a young man in a wife-beater undershirt, bandanna over his face and carrying a club appears in the street 3 floors below. Now, I'm from the Midwest and am not sophisticated, but there is something in my gut that tells me that "This just CAN"T be good." A minute later 2 more appear, then 4 after that....and after some invisible, unheard signal is given the smash, grab, and looting begin.
My family and I stand back from the window with knife and sticks in hand, ready to fight or flee to the top floor and block it off as the smash-and-grab begins. What we are witnessing a "spontaneous" demonstration against the current president, and an equally spontaneous redistribution of wealth. Strictly "coincidence" that all sorts of thugs, soccer hooligans and criminals descended on various parts of BA at 1p.m. on the same day.....
Given the fact that every business is closed down there has obviously been word on the street that something big is up.
A first, tense hour of looting goes by - the jewelry shop is looted, the cell phone shop is emptied, the flash clothing store becomes a wasteland - and the college bookstore remains untouched. It becomes surreal. I watch while the ice cream store a block a way is gutted and ravaged - and after prying away the metal drop-screen the looters stop, sit, and enjoy ice cream cones before their next break-in and desecration.
We watched the smash. We watched the grab. Perhaps two hours later the cavalry arrives in the form of the Argentine motorcycle police. At first a couple patrolman come and drive away; within minutes many more appear - this time bearing tear gas grenades. While we put wet towels and on the windows and get the kids to the bathroom with more towels covering the opening under the door we cheer in our room as they arrive, yet curse our burning eyes as some tear gas leaks through.
The looters flee, and we survive.
The Next Morning
We awaken and I venture out wondering how much destruction there actually was after the smoke had cleared and the fires put out. I am amazed.....nearly all the streets are swept and clean; broken windows are already boarded over; most debris is piled and awaiting the next disposal truck.....and the people walk to work as though nothing unusual happened.
I speak with a reporter and ask, "How can this be? How can the city go from battle ground to near-normal overnight?" He answers: "This is Argentina....," and I am speechless.
We head out to the bank because our dollar reserves are getting low. At the time the Argentines were working on a dual currency system, with the Peso linked one-for-one to the Dollar. The banks are open, but the government has declared a "banking holiday" which has the middle class saying, "Here it comes, here it comes." We arrive at the bank - we have British pounds Sterling, Pesos, our AmEx card, and our Traveler's Cheques. There are guards in front of the banks, and bank employees are sitting with their feet up on the desks, as everything is "frozen." No-one will accept Sterling and despite the commercials of the day no-one will take American Express Traveler's Cheques, and nobody wants the indigenous Pesos. We cannot change money. Business and people accept Dollars or nothing. Case closed. We are running out of money.
The economy is frozen, and nobody can buy or sell, except on the black market.
The riots and demonstrations work, and the president resigns to make way for the Peronist Party who is orchestrating a return to power. There are a dozen people who become "El Presidente" in a few days; I'm tempted to tender my application because my chances seem good and it will look good on my resume!
Our friends who are middle class - doctors, lawyers, and even a government official - tell us that what will happen is: the Government will, with the stroke of a pen, remove every dollar from each person's bank account and replace it with a worthless Peso, in effect eliminating the middle class by edict and use of e-banking.
We cut our trip short and return to the UK because we could not buy or sell past our limited supply of Yankee Dollars.
Only a day later, we learn that the Argentine government has decided to replace all the dollars with the worthless Peso, and the middle class is effectively eliminated as El Presidente secondes the money into God-knows-where, and assures the lower classes that finally they are achieving the fair treatment they deserve.
P.S. Our contacts tell us that though these events happened some years ago there has been only partial recovery. The corruption continues and the Left remains in power; control of opposition press, through intimidation, takes place; the redistribution of wealth continues. Crime has risen greatly.
The Take-Aways are these:
1. SHTF scenarios seem to happen very fast.
2. SHTF scenarios actually cast a foreshadowing, but the explosion happens very fast.
3. There are Powers at work that really do "stuff" to average people.
4. Cash is King!
5. Argentina has a parallel black economy that helps keep the regular person going - we have no such economy.
6. In light of #5, it's good to know people.
8. Even if you are good at martial arts, in a real riot you are toast if you get stuck in one.
9. People will stick together and adapt.
10. Some people will be predatory.
11. Even predatory people don't like tear gas or clubs if they get enough of either.
The major take-way is this - if it can happen there - in a country much more sophisticated and educated than most Yanks give it credit for - it can happen here.
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