Review – Jorge Schvarzer. Bunge & Born: Crecimiento y diversificación de un grupo económico. Buenos Aires: CISEA/Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1989.

“A largo plazo, las fallas de esos sistemas se hicieron sentir en el desarrollo económico del país, pero a principios de siglo quedaban disimuladas por el rápido crecimiento de la producción que parecía ofrecer un horizonte sin límites para el futuro. Mucho más tarde se comenzaría a apreciar que algunas actividades ‘industriales’ habían colaborado en mantener el atraso porque sus intereses concretos apuntaban a mantener el statu quo antes que a impulsar el progreso tecnológico y el cambio social. La Compañía Industrial de Bolsas parece haber sido una de ellas durante muchas décadas, hasta que el progreso técnico la llevó a su eclipse definitivo en los setenta.”

(“In the long run, these system failures negatively impacted the country’s economic development, but at the turn of the century their effects were obscured by the rapid growth of production which seemed to promise a future of limitless horizons. Much later, it would become evident that certain ‘industrial’ ventures had conspired to halt progress, since their business interests benefited more from the status quo than they would have from pushing for technological and social change. The Compañía Industrial de Bolsas appears to have been one of these ventures for many decades, until it was itself rendered obsolete in the 1970s by the very technological advancements it had sought to impede.”)

Jorge Schvarzer

Jorge Schvarzer’s Bunge & Born hit the presses in March 1989. Argentina was one month into the hyperinflationary crisis that would drive President Raúl Alfonsín from office six months before the end of his elected term. On July 8, Carlos Menem assumed the presidency, and as part of his recovery plan (the so-called Plan B&B), he recruited his first two ministers of the economy–Miguel Roig and Néstor Mario Rapanelli–directly from the executive ranks of Bunge & Born, one of the oldest, largest, and most diversified corporations in Argentina. This marriage between state and industry was at the time hailed as unprecedented in the history of economic policy worldwide. Whether or not this assessment is accurate, under the circumstances it isn’t difficult to detect a muted urgency to the author’s statement, that he wrote this book in order to “fill a gap in the literature,” so that the mammoth and highly secretive multinational corporation might become “a topic of open discussion in a society that wants and must come to know itself better” (page 11; my translation). While he does not mention explicitly this burgeoning political relationship, it must have been uppermost in Schvarzer’s mind at the time of publication.

Viewed through this interpretive lens, the book takes on a depth of meaning belied by its somewhat clinical brevity. On the surface, it is more technical report than anything else. It is divided into three chapters: the first offers a brief historical synopsis of the company’s founding and development over its first hundred years; the second, a more detailed description of Bunge & Born’s various subsidiary ventures and their place in the history of Argentine industrial development; and the third, a rather misleadingly named conclusion, in which few conclusions are drawn and fewer concrete opinions voiced. Schvarzer’s is, in fact, a work strikingly devoid of analysis or interpretation, which forces one to read between the lines. It quickly becomes clear that the author’s most pressing points are the ones he never quite makes.

Ernesto Bunge arrived in Argentina in 1880 from Antwerp, home of his family’s import-export business, Bunge & Co., since 1859. In Argentina, where prosperity depends almost entirely on the ability to move large amounts of money in and out of the country–often at a moment’s notice–this transatlantic connection would be key to his future success. Bunge’s brother-in-law, Jorge Born, followed soon afterwards. The corporation which came to be known as Bunge & Born was founded in 1884, just as the nascent Argentine agro-export model began to hit its stride. Originally centered around the grain export trade, the company expanded quickly and by the end of the century had added first manufacturing then processing to their repertory. Finance came next, in 1905, with the formation of the Banco Hipotecario Franco Argentino which, given its founding members, didn’t really merit the national adjective. This was, as the author points out, “one of the least known aspects of the company’s little known activities” (p. 17; my translation), and one which, in Argentina, truly meant standing with one foot on either side of the fence. At the very least, these international linkages would have enabled Bunge & Born to weather with a little more aplomb the multiplicity of financial crises that dogged the country throughout the 20th century. At worst, it would have allowed them to perpetrate a number of technically legal but socially detrimental acts related to the movement and accumulation of wealth in a nation where far too few people are able to participate in either process.

In 1905, the corporation built its first flour mill in Brazil, thus beginning its expansion within the Latin American continent. Peru and Uruguay soon followed. In the 1920s, they entered the cotton trade, again in Brazil, another step in their expansion within Latin America. Throughout the 20th century, Bunge & Born and its subsidiaries grew steadily, with the exception of the war years and the global depression in the 1930s–both of which forced the corporation back into a domestic mindset, if only momentarily. Then, in 1975, two of the Born brothers, including Jorge Born III, future president of Bunge & Born, were kidnapped by the Montoneros, a leftist paramilitary organization, and ransomed for 60 million dollars. After their release, both relocated to Brazil, taking “effective control of the group” with them. After nearly a century, “the largest multinational of Argentine extraction” was suddenly no longer strictly Argentine.

This fact is key to a complete appraisal of the developing political situation in 1989. Not only was the Argentine economy in chaos, but the people who had been entrusted with restoring it to health represented a multinational conglomerate with fingers in everybody’s pies and numberless interests in overseas markets that often benefited directly from Argentina’s economic woes. Their sitting president hadn’t resided in the country for over a decade; in fact, when Menem began courting their support, Jorge Born III had to fly in from Brazil, where he was living at the time, to confer with the future president. Moreover, in that conference and others that followed it, the Ministry of the Economy was essentially sold to Bunge & Born for a healthy–and indeterminate–dose of campaign financing, making it clear that the “Plan B&B” had far more to do with winning an election than it ever did with the formulation of substantive economic policy. Given that the corporation’s first nominee to the Ministry, Miguel Roig, died from exhaustion six days into his tenure, according to some due to the intransigence of his employers and their industrialist friends and their systematic attempts to sabotage his efforts to enforce the policies they themselves supposedly created, it is easy to understand the doubts that might have led to the publication of this book. The keys to the henhouse had effectively been auctioned off to the foxes.

The story of Bunge & Born is one of broad and rapid diversification, but it also reveals a relentless campaign to corner markets and capture supply chains throughout the Argentine economy. It is impossible to truly understand the corporation’s staggering and apparently immediate success without taking into account both sides of this coin. For example, from grain exportation the company branched into transport infrastructure with the manufacture of tin containers (Centenera, founded in 1899) and grain sacks (Compañía Industrial de Bolsas, 1900). The latter provides an excellent example of the oligopolic nature of the Argentine industrial complex (then and now). At several points during the first two decades of the 20th century, the government attempted to regulate the import of grain sacks, which tended to represent higher costs for the agricultural sector (and also left local producers of raw materials out of the loop). Some of these failed due to official incompetence, but in some cases–such as the elimination of import tariffs on grain sacks, which companies like Compañía dodged deftly through cynically-timed price gouging–they failed because of the counterthrusts of the industrial leadership, either through market manipulation or the exercise of political influence.

Bunge & Born also branched out into chemicals, textiles, and wall coverings (anyone who has ever painted their home in Argentina will recognize the Alba brand, although the company’s website makes no mention at all of their founding fathers and is now owned by AkzoNobel, a Dutch conglomerate out of Amsterdam). However, by far the most wide-ranging of their ventures was Molinos Río de la Plata, now known simply as Molinos. This began in 1901 essentially as a government contract intended to take advantage of what was assumed to be a burgeoning global flour export market; the first of Bunge & Born’s flour mills went into action one year later in Puerto Madero. It very quickly became evident that this perceived market was more mirage than reality, however, which forced the corporation to focus its attentions on the domestic demand, and again, Bunge & Born went into predatory mode. One by one, they picked off their Argentine competitors all over the country, overpaying grain and underselling the flour until their rivals had no choice but to sell out. Since then, Molinos has expanded into everything from olive oil to yerba mate, and are now, according to their website, responsible for 13 top consumer brands and 23% of the basic household food requirements.

Both the Compañía Industrial de Bolsas and Molinos are excellent examples of a time-tested business model that Schvarzer describes as a feedback loop. Bunge & Born tended to invest in activities that in some way fed back into already established areas of concentration (such as the relevance of grain sacks to a company founded on grain exports). These lateral movements allowed for maximum growth with a minimum of effort, and explains why Bunge & Born’s expansion was so explosive in nature. The lessons they learned from the failure of the flour export trade also taught them to bet on other people’s horses when their own flagged or failed; they began instead to invest directly in those markets they couldn’t access via exportation, thus diverting money that could have gone toward bolstering local Argentine industries. As Schvarzer points out, rather tongue in cheek, “it is possible that certain of their decisions, although understandable from a microeconomic perspective, may have had deleterious effects in terms of national development” (p. 75; my translation). From even a surface reading of the situation, it seems fairly obvious that this was the case.

Schvarzer’s book was first drafted, according to its brief preface, in 1987 for a 1988 workshop at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan. The present version, he says, is by way of “reaching a wider public” and in light of new information that has emerged on the subject, in the interests of counteracting what he calls “an absence of study and debate” on such matters in Argentina. Again, the timing cannot have been a coincidence; it is difficult to believe that this “new information” is not related or at least relevant to the political ascendance of Bunge & Born and the formulation of Plan B&B. Since the author does not really engage in any evaluative analysis, it is hard to discern his personal feelings (if any) toward the multinational; however, with its influence on the rise, it is not at all difficult to understand why he might wish to shed new light on a somewhat obscure subject. At the time of writing, the author notes that due to marriage alliances between corporate families, in Argentina and in Europe, it was difficult even to determine what interests Bunge & Born encompassed; reading the portfolio of the corporation as it stood resembled trying to decipher a medieval royal genealogy. As they stood to take up the economic reins of the nation, the impossibility of defining their corporate identity or their political–or even national–loyalties, and given the extent to which the conglomerate controlled Argentina’s productive apparatus, one might naturally fear that, rather than swooping in to save the day, Bunge & Born was actually poised to stage a hostile takeover. Or, perhaps, that they already had.

© Vance Woods

Conscience of Crisis: A Conversation with Nicholas D’Avella

Nicholas D’Avella is an anthropologist with research interests in markets, expert knowledge, and urban ecologies. His work brings concern with practices into dialogue with anthropological themes related to money, exchange, and value. His book, Concrete Dreams: Practice, Value, and Built Environments in Post-Crisis Buenos Aires was published in 2019 with Duke University Press.

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Vance: Before we get into it, I want to say that yours is hands-down the best English-language book on Argentina I’ve ever read, and one of my favorite books in general. I have my own copy now, and I look forward to what I’m sure will be multiple re-reads in the future.

I grew up in Argentina; my parents were missionaries there from 1988 to 2002, and I was there between the ages of 10 and 19. That places me in-country during the austral crisis in the late ’80s-early ’90s. Although I had already returned to the U.S. for college by that time, I was visiting my folks over the Christmas and New Year holidays in 2001-2002 when De la Rúa’s corralito was in full swing and the country cycled through five presidents in a week and a half. Finally, I was there when inflation set in again under Mauricio Macri in 2016-2017 and consumer goods tripled or quadrupled in value in a matter of months.

However, while I’ve witnessed a number of Argentine economic crises, I’d never really experienced one personally until this last time around. In the late ’80s, I was quite young and shielded by the fact that my family wasn’t really from Argentina. My parents were paid in dollars by employers in the United States, and we were free to leave the country at any time. Even recently, during Macri’s debacle, my exposure was relatively superficial; while my options were as limited in daily practice as anyone else’s, I was still free to leave at leisure and in fact did. This is a choice few have the wherewithal to make. I’m left with the question, then: how to understand the role of crisis in Argentine life? Since I admire your book, and since it deals directly with this question, in the context of the crisis of 2001-2003, I am thrilled to be able to speak with you.

I’m curious, right off the top, to know more about your connection to Argentina. What was it that attracted you to that country as a topic of research?

Nicholas: I started studying anthropology as a grad student, and was interested in cities and urban life, how cities grow and change over time. I wasn’t an anthropology undergrad, though; most anthropology students have previous experience in the field and connections to a particular country. I’d lived in London, but that didn’t strike me as a great choice for an anthropologist career-wise. There are anthropologists working in the United States; I could have stayed here to do my research, but I liked the idea of going somewhere else. I didn’t even speak Spanish the first time I went to Argentina, but I liked Latin America. I had a bunch of friends who had just gone to Buenos Aires on holiday and loved it. I had also just seen Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ 2004 film The Take, about worker takeovers of factories and hotels. It was really that sort of decision.

I was there for three months in 2005 and 2006, a month and a half in 2007, and then fulltime from 2008 to 2010. I went back for two more months in 2012 and then for three or four months in 2016. Of course, now I go back to visit friends and not for work. I didn’t have any connections there when I first went, but now I have many of them.

Vance: That really surprises me, because the comprehension of the country that you express in your book is quite deep, and quite personal as well. I kind of assumed you had a connection to Argentina similar to mine, going back years and years. I spent most of my childhood around people who had been working in the country in some cases for 20 to 30 years, and I didn’t necessarily see in them the level of investment in the place or the people that you show in your work.

Nicholas: I’m glad that came across. I definitely feel that connection and I wanted to express that in the book. It’s a very personal book, even though it’s not really about me. I decided to include some of those moments and stories that go beyond the facts and figures of the argument–conversations I had with close friends who taught me about things like the comics or the tango. I didn’t expect to include tango lyrics, for example, in the book because they’re so cliché, but I realized that if they are cliché, it’s because they’re very present in Argentina, so I figured out a way to use them after all. It seemed very relevant, and stemmed from conversations and questions asked to people I spent a lot of time with and with whom I developed very warm relationships.

Vance: Facundo Manes, an Argentine neuroscientist, talks in his book El cerebro argentino [The Argentine Brain] about the constant state of crisis that doesn’t give people time to really reflect on the past or plan for the future because they are always in the middle of some developing crisis moment, either recovering from one that has just ended or preparing for one that’s setting in. In your book, you write that “crisis, while an event that names an epochal moment, can also be made to intertwine itself across registers binding the epochal to the everyday [p.16].”

When I read your book, Mauricio Macri had just left the presidency. The October 2019 elections were over, Alberto Fernández had assumed, and the country was once again caught in a cycle of inflation and issues of international debt, depositors’ money was to some extent trapped inside the banks and a new cepo [restrictions on foreign exchange] was in place. So, the subtitle of the book–“post-crisis Buenos Aires”–captured my attention. It shows the limitations of historical work conducted in the present moment. It’s very difficult to see into the future, especially in a place so defined by cyclical crises. So, the first question that occurred to me is this: Is there really such a thing as a “post-crisis” Argentina?

Nicholas: When I would say to people, “Oh, with the crisis,” they would say, “Which crisis?” They knew which one I meant, you know, but it was this performance of this thing that you just said, that there are many, there are so many. They can rattle off the history of these different moments of economic difficulty–hyperinflation in the late ’80s, the crisis in 2001, and of course the knowledge that there would be future crises.

I guess I would disagree with Manes’ claim that Argentines aren’t able to reflect on their situation, precisely because of the constant nature of crisis. I think there is a “post-crisis,” there are many post-crisis moments. There are also moments when that sort of epochal peak arrives, as in 2001, but between 2003 and, say, 2010, it didn’t feel like one of those moments. In 2012, the feeling returned, with the first cepo. New forms of crisis emerge, but there’s certainly time for people to reflect, and they do reflect; they tell a lot stories about past crises, and that was very interesting to me. The stories are always told with this vibe of future preparation, and as I say in the book, it’s not as if analysis of the past helps you predict the future, but it does help you hold the future open, and inspires an attitude that says, “We don’t know exactly what the future will be like, but look, we have this beautiful collection of horrific moments that we’ve lived through.” That’s what makes those stories so valuable, to think them over and consider them with an attitude to the future.

Vance: Your thought on the survival aspect of storytelling interested me as well. I hear stories about people who had bad experiences during the Rodrigazo, in the 1970s, from younger generations who saw the continued effects of those experiences as they came up, and how that changed their outlook on the future. They were able to put that awareness to good use; some got out of the corralito pretty much intact because they saw it coming and completed all of the transactions necessary to protect their savings just in time. I’ve also heard stories of people who did not because they were so invested in the present that they forgot the lessons from the past.

We could take a lesson from this here in the United States, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I lived with my grandmother during college. She was born in 1917 and lived through the Great Depression and World War II, in which my grandfather served. She would go into a panic if she had to buy a broom or some other small item like that, because she was convinced that she wasn’t going to have the money she needed, even though, in all honesty, she was loaded.

As we move farther away from that generation, we lose that sort of historical consciousness. I think the pandemic will probably change that for a lot of us. I’m curious to see what sort of storytelling efforts will emerge from all this. I work in a library, and I’ve seen a number of archival efforts to gather and document the experiences people have had with COVID-19 in order to be able to pass them on.

Nicholas: It’s interesting to think about stories as one form of memory, and of course there are many forms. Your grandmother’s was perhaps more embodied and deeply psychological, I’m sure based on a rational story–“I’ve lived these things and they were difficult”–but it also has a traumatic aspect to it. If we take memory as an expansive category, then that kind of lived experience and the archive that your body carries with it would be another form of memory. Archives that are more formal and document based would be another. The popular stories I include in my book are yet another.

This comes out, too, in the commitments of the architects I talk about in the book, around not just crisis but also the dictatorship, and their efforts to hold present a way of thinking about architecture and their engagement with the popular classes. They didn’t really talk about it this way themselves; it took a lot of work to figure out the commitments of these architects to do architecture a certain kind of way. I had to ask myself, “What’s leftist about this sort of architecture?” I realized there were certain key moments that were really important to them, that led them to work in a way that introduces a consciousness of class, and a conversation about architecture as an elite good versus a non-elite good.  These moments formed a sort of memory about ways of doing architecture that had existed briefly in the early 1970s and then were snuffed out by dictatorial violence.

Vance: Switching gears a bit, I’d like to talk a little about the rebusque. As we go into this particular crisis here in the United States, I’m starting to see signs at supermarkets that talk about coin shortages and exact change, which makes me think back to all the odd forms of change I’ve received in Argentina: Band-Aids, candy, even a tangerine once. There is a always a shortage of change there, although in their case we’re usually talking about small bills rather than coins. When the 500 peso bill came out in 2017, for example, it complicated things because in my somewhat marginal neighborhood no one had change for them, so I had to spend them in town to get change, which I could then use closer to home.

I remember that as the current crisis began to unfold in 2016, my neighborhood started to look like the United Nations. There were flags all along the sidewalks, showing where someone had basically turned their home into a kiosco [convenience store]. They were selling the same things as their neighbors, who had also turned their homes into stores. This is a flexibility we don’t necessarily have here in the United States, due to zoning ordinances and things like that. I’m fascinated by this sort of phasing in and out of identities of a domestic space. Is this something you experienced in your research of built environments, that they can almost effortlessly go from domestic setting to commercial setting and back again?

Nicholas: There are a couple of layers to that. I definitely remember getting candy as change, and it was impossible to take the bus when I was there in 2006 because you needed exact change and no stores would give it to you because they didn’t have it either. I remember thinking, “Where is this change? Who has it? Somebody has to have it.” I bought so many things in order to get change for the bus, and sometimes I’d end up with candy anyway. It was like a foiled effort to get money to do its job, and it was unfathomable to me that nobody had solved this problem.

Regarding people who convert their homes into kioscos, I’ve heard stories, although I don’t recall witnessing it myself. I do have a lot of stories about people figuring out ways to make money with what they’ve got. People bake things and sell them; if you go to an Argentine park where there are a lot of people, you can expect someone to come by with a basket of items for sale, empanadas or something like that. I’m starting to see activities like that here in the U.S. Cartoneros, of course, were a huge figure in Argentina in the late ’90s, and still are; here we have people who collect recycling for resale. This is something you see in New York all the time, since we have can and bottle deposits that can be collected upon trade-in. That sort of activity is part of the informal social architecture of cities; it’s something you see that changes your consciousness. I think that’s the sort of thing we’re seeing a lot of now, as people try to figure out how to make ends meet by means of informal labor, just like someone who opens a kiosco in their home.

As far as more formal architecture is concerned, it’s an interesting question. I live in New York; commercial rents have plummeted, a lot of stores are closing up. There has been a lot of research done on “luxury blight,” the phenomenon of unrented storefronts in expensive neighborhoods due to landlords’ unwillingness to lower rents and miss out on tax abatements based on lost rent. Lower rent means less money at tax time. We have yet to see the long-term effects of those things. There’s also the issue of “Airbnb-ification”: whole buildings dedicated to temporary rentals, which have also changed the landscape of housing in the city. I’m sure the super-rich aren’t the only ones doing these things; there are also people with just enough money to invest in creative ways that may generate income.

Vance: One of the reasons I connected with your book so quickly was the story you told in the introduction about Mariela and her efforts to purchase an apartment, how she and her sons strapped the cash to their bodies under their clothes, hoping to reach the bank without running afoul of the motochorros [muggers on motorcycles]. I haven’t purchased a home in Argentina, but I have sold one, and I too, after the papers were signed, had to strap a ton of cash to myself beneath my coat and book it through a crowded city center to the bank before it closed for the weekend, so that I could fly out of the country the next day.

We think of homes here in the United States largely as a short-term investment: we buy it, we stay in it long enough to build up some equity, then sell it at a profit in order to move on to a bigger home. This is definitely not the case in Argentina. For one thing, home loans are not really an option, unless you’re just filthy rich, so if you’re going to buy a house you have to save up the full amount beforehand and set it down in a chunk on the realtor’s table. That is much more of a long-term investment, in that it takes a lot more work to get to the table at all, and in that selling isn’t nearly as attractive an idea, since once it’s gone you don’t know what if anything you’ll find to replace it. There isn’t much scope for trading upward since your next purchase can’t really exceed the cash amount you got from the sale.

Another one of my new favorite books is Historia del dinero [The Story of Money], by Alan Pauls, which you mentioned in your own book. You use the protagonist’s purchase of an apartment and the time and money spent on renovations, and how that process intersected with successive economic crises along the way. The apartment basically turned into a money pit, which he ended up selling at a loss soon after work was finished. Real estate is such a tenuous, and yet such an important part, of Argentine life and the Argentine imaginary: I was once told that as long as you have a roof over your head, you can get by. Governments come and go, inflation comes and goes, but as long as those bricks are there, you’re safe.

What is the biggest difference you saw between the perception of real estate and the built environment in Argentina and the same perceptions here in the U.S., and what lessons do you think we can learn from this?

Nicholas: In terms of contrasts, I think what you said is right: in Argentina, these things are thought of as a good that has a monetary, or market, value, but people don’t typically think of their homes exclusively in those terms. It’s not thought of as a short-term investment. It’s thought of as a home, in a much more substantive way. We have that here, too, to an extent, but certain phenomena like subdevelopments with much more comparable or fungible homes, where one is very similar to the others and you could move three blocks away to an identical unit, which I think is much more common here, probably tend to erode that sense of deep connection. I’m sure it allows for other sorts of connection; it’s not like Americans don’t care about their houses or don’t have affective attachments to them, but there is definitely that contrast there.

I think that maybe poses a question I would be interested in, then, in terms of the United States: what does “home” mean to people, how do they think about it, and where does the value of a house lie? Maybe what we would find is that it really is just an economic proposition: where can I live and send my kids to a good school, or to not have a long commute. But I suspect it would be more complicated than just that. Also, when we think about the translation of this question from Argentina to the U.S., it is a problem because there are so many important differences. Argentina, for example, doesn’t have a functioning mortgage market, so what it means to buy a house is very different.

Vance: When I bought my first home here in the U.S., everybody kept talking to me about “starter homes.” Also, when I bought my first home, I didn’t really buy anything; I basically paid rent to the bank for the seven years I lived there. This is a big difference, in that the act of purchase in Argentine is a wholesale act; you take the money with you, and it becomes your house and no one else’s. It may not be complete; you may have to add on two-thirds of the house after buying it, but it is yours with a capital “Y.”

Here, if I lose my job, I lose my home, because I don’t have the income to keep up the mortgage, whereas in Argentina, if you lose your job, that home becomes your refuge and base of operations and you make it into whatever you need it to be in order to weather the crisis.

Nicholas: We also have different geographies of movement; people move around here, and farther from their extended families, much more easily than in Argentina.

Vance: I remember a conversation I had with a friend in Argentina about that. I was driving from Texas to Missouri to see some old college friends–about a nine and a half to ten hour trip–and it was this unheard of distance to him. Then I remember making a trip from my home to Buenos Aires, which is half the distance and requires half the time, and it was still logistically more difficult than my car trip in the United States. So, the mobility issue is definitely important.

One last question: I mentioned Facundo Manes’ book, and there is also a book by Carlos Nino, titled Un país al margen de la ley [A Country Outside the Law]–there are any number of academic or journalistic books about the Argentine dilemma, really, that are very good, the theory is great, and I think they’re spot on in a lot of ways. One of my favorite quotes from the Manes book has to do with the infamous viveza criolla [a sort of native common sense], which the author describes as an “intelligence with short legs.” I think that’s probably a fair description. However, I’ve noticed in my conversations with the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who have actually lived through all of the nastiness and have had to adjust their lifestyles and actions accordingly, that there is a very large difference of perception regarding this so-called dilemma. I’m convinced it isn’t a lack of understanding on the part of the average Argentine. I think they’re very aware of the way things work, or else they wouldn’t survive. It seems to be a difference not just in the approach to solving the problem, but in the perception of whether or not there’s even a problem to be solved. Here we return to the multiple black markets and the practice of giving candy as change, and the attempt to make money do what it’s supposed to do. I think they’ve pretty much given up on what money is supposed to do, so they’re making it do what it has to do.

As I watch what’s happening here as we move through this pandemic period, I see us becoming in some ways more flexible, or adaptive, in the ways we solve our daily problems. I see signs around town outside houses, people who are sewing masks and selling them out of their homes, which is exactly what happens in Argentina when a crisis kicks in: people sew socks and sell them door to door, or they bake bread or make milanesas. Or they put a kiosco in their home and sell things through their front window.

The perception here, I think, generally is that when the politicians stop working for us, that puts us against the wall and we have no outlet, but what I see in Argentina, where it’s been years since most people have been really invested in the political process on a macro level, is that not only are people still getting by, but that in some ways that divorce between the macro and micro levels of government has created a vacuum which allows the popular form of politics greater room for expression. I’m thinking here also of Queremos Buenos Aires and other grassroots groups you talked about in the book, as well as things I saw when I was there. What do you think about this?

Nicholas: There’s a whole cottage industry of publications about Argentine economic woes that places the blame on the Argentines themselves, the viveza criolla, a sort of cunning that’s also selfish, that isn’t capable of forming collective projects which might improve the national situation. That’s a trope; it’s something you can read a lot of books about. It’s also a common belief among people in Argentina; the reason those books exist is because it’s an idea the people connect with. I always had a very different take on it, which is similar to what you were saying, that people are actually very smart and are doing what they have to do to get by.

You can blame the situation on poor economic decision-making by the government, as well, but the truth is that most economies that exist in the shadow of the United States and Europe are not doing well, or do well only in fits and bursts–they are not stable. There’s something about thinking of a world capitalist system that’s really important to thinking about the position of Argentina in that world. That, I think, is why so much attention is paid, say in the films of Pino Solanas, to this idea that, yes, the Argentine government is corrupt and that’s a bad thing, but that corruption is also due in part to the influence of multinational corporations, because of international banking systems and the role of global banks. Argentina is situated in a system of power, and no matter who you vote for, it’s not clear that they’re going to be able to fix that. There are different ways of approaching the problem, which might have different impacts, but the problem itself remains.

Regarding Argentina, I do think some people are a little more short-sighted, who think in terms of this government or that government, but I think it is easier to meet Argentines who are aware of the larger systemic issues than it is to meet Americans who are aware of them. People who have a perspective on Marxism are much more common in Argentina than in the United States; in the United States, people will say that they hate it, but they don’t really even know what it is. If you went to university in Argentina, you’ve had a close encounter with Marxism and probably a lot of friends who are Marxists.

Vance: Things swing back and forth so much; one thing about Argentine economic history is that there doesn’t appear to be a middle way. You’re either completely isolationist, or you’re completely open, and it changes almost with every new administration. If you are over the age of fifteen, you’ve been in one or the other of those situations, so when you talk about socialism or Marxism–or any other “ism”–it’s very likely that you’ve experienced it personally to some extent. Here, it’s all theoretical, as you pointed out; most people don’t know what the difference is between socialism, Marxism, or communism. In Argentina, it’s a lived experience.

You reminded me of one of the greatest summations of what it is to be Argentine that I’ve ever heard. I was once told that the good thing about Argentina is that you’re always starting over. If that is not a way to make the sour grapes sweet, I don’t know what is. But it’s true: every time a new face shows up in the Casa Rosada, every time a new economic tack is taken, everybody starts again. Whether it be a new cepo, or inflation, or defaulting on a debt, something throws everything out of whack. That is an experience that I think we here in the U.S. have not really had. I’m still paying today for a gallon of milk what I was paying in college, give or take a few cents. Gas prices go up and down constantly, but still within a fairly established margin depending on where one is in the country.

This is what interests me about the time we’re going through right now. I just read an article about the ways in which COVID-19 has changed our economy, and that it’s probably not going back to the way it was before. Businesses are focusing on connectivity because we’ve gone remote and will probably stay that way to some degree; the educational system has changed because the things we need to know and the ways we need to learn them have changed; we can’t even shake hands anymore. We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for a little over a year, and we’re coming apart at the seams. I think there are lessons we can learn from the flexibility that I saw in Argentina, because I think you’re right, I think people there are extremely intelligent in the ways that matter to them. When I say the ways that matter to them, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just that they’re in a very different situation and have been for years. This ability to think on their feet–and through their stories–and to survive could teach us a great deal, if we’re willing to listen.

©2021 – Vance Woods

Review – Luis Majul, Por qué cayó Alfonsín: El nuevo terrorismo económico: Los personajes; las conexiones; las claves secretas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1990.

“La administración radical se despidió con la sensación de ser inoperante, ineficiente, e indiferente ante las necesidades de los más pobres. Algunos funcionarios fueron sospechados de corruptos, y la memoria colectiva se reserva el derecho de la duda. Pero también la primera etapa del gobierno de Carlos Menem se está empezando a teñir de esos presupuestos. ¿El Estado nacional es un instrumento para satisfacer el bienestar común o la palanca para que algunos funcionarios, muchas veces en complicidad con ciertos empresarios y sindicalistas coimeros, se enriquezcan con velocidad y sin esfuerzo?”

(“The Radical administration left in its wake a sense of its own dysfunction, inefficiency, and indifference to the needs of the poorest citizens. Some officials were suspected of corruption, and the collective memory reserves the right of doubt. But the first stage of Carlos Menem’s government is also beginning to be colored by these suppositions. Is the State supposed to be an instrument whereby the common welfare may be achieved, or is it meant only as a mechanism by means of which government officials, often in complicity with certain greasy-palmed businessmen and trade unionists, may enrich themselves quickly and without effort?”)

Luis Majul

Majul’s narrative, which reads like a dime store thriller, begins three days before “Black Monday,” February 6, 1989, and covers the tumultuous five-month period between that day and July 8, when Raúl Alfonsín ceded the presidency to newly elected Carlos Menem, six months before the end of the former’s official term.

The author gives a blow by blow account of the unfolding hyperinflationary crisis, from the initial surge in February, through the tribulations and fall from grace of two consecutive ministers of the economy, Juan Sourrouille and Juan Carlos Pugliese, the failure of the outgoing Radical and the incoming Peronist administrations to reach any sort of impartial accord regarding the handling of the ongoing crisis, and the social explosion that rocked the nation from late May into June, and finally to the passing of the presidential baton on July 8, in the Salon Blanco of the Casa Rosada.

At the center of the “biggest social and economic mess in the history of the nation” lies the eventual partnership between two countervailing forces: on one hand, the “exporter class,” whose refusal to convert their reserves from dollars to australes in order to bolster the local currency drove the value of the dollar ever higher; on the other, the Menem effect, the businessman’s fear of a Peronist hyper-regulatory government, which supposedly drained the economy of 4 billion dollars, money which might have been used by the Alfonsín administration to combat the crisis. In the event, the two forces coalesced in the so-called Menemtroika, and Bunge & Born, one of the chief offenders among the exporters, was placed in charge of Menem’s Ministry of Economy. The businessmen, who supposedly feared a Menem presidency too much to risk priming the austral, actually found themselves sheltered by his administration.

In any case, it is doubtful whether access to those 4 billion dollars would have done much to counteract the Alfonsín administration’s inability to curb the crisis. Alfonsín’s plans were effectively derailed by the midterm elections of 1987, which were swept by the Peronists, and by the time things came to a head in 1989, his main concern was to get out of the presidency with his reputation intact, and–if possible–to preside over the first democratic transition of power in 61 years. Consequently, talks during those final five months had less to do with economic solutions than with political survival. And thus, the crisis was kicked down the line.

The key moment, as far as Majul is concerned, is the failure of Operativo Retirada (Operation Retreat). This is the name given to the talks between Radicals and Peronists regarding an early and graceful departure from office for Alfonsín, which began immediately after Menem’s electoral victory on May 14. They are, according to Majul, “an overwhelming proof of the suicidal vocation and immaturity of the Argentine political leadership.” This is an opinion voiced by many in the years following the end of the Proceso in 1983; Argentine politicians were not used to functioning in a democratic environment, and had no idea how to include the welfare of the people in their equations of power. Menem’s demand for essentially plenipotentiary powers, which ironically was ultimately legitimated by the departing administration in the July accord, blew the conversation out of the water, and these negotiations, which should have acted as a social palliative, ended in stalemate as the rest of the country imploded.

The book includes 4 one-on-one interviews (“monologues”) set within the context of the crisis of 1989. First, Majul speaks to Juan Sourrouille, the minister responsible for the Plan Primavera, which the author describes as little more than an attempt to keep a lid on inflation for the duration of Alfonsín’s administration and let the “time bomb…go off in his successor’s face.” Then, there is a conversation with Carlos Menem, the successor, about the time bomb and how he dealt with having it thrown in his lap. Next, with a 14-year-old named Martín Laguna, who witnessed and participated in the social meltdown in May and June of 1989, defined by violent looting and equally violent repression. Finally, he speaks with Raúl Alfonsín himself, around the time his term was supposed to have ended, about the way and why things fell apart, and how the former president expects to be judged by history.

Majul concludes his work with a postscript dedicated to a “new creature,” a new Argentine who offers solutions to successive crises out of everyday experience, from the local and the micro, rather than seeking answers from above–a cult of individuality rather than of personality. This, to Majul, is essential: politics, labor, and business are so intertwined and each so closely implicated in the malfeasances of the others that it is virtually impossible for a workable and equitable solution to lie in that direction. It is an optimistic ending, envisioning a country kept afloat by the right action of its people when right action from its leaders cannot be depended upon. Thirty years and several crises after the fact, the reader can decide whether or not Majul’s observations are justified or merely wishful thinking.

©2021 – Vance Woods