Humanizing Argentina’s inflation

The pains and gains of gasoleros — Argentines who grew up under two decades of recession

February 27, 2014 10:30AM ET
A "Price Watch" sign for onions at a supermarket in Buenos Aires.
Diego Levy/Bloomberg/Getty Images

I was 18 years old when the 2002 economic crisis — punctuated by 41 percent inflation — hit Argentina, pushing millions, including my family, into poverty. In the early 1990s, Argentina was hailed as a classic model for free market reforms. Between 1997 and 2002, the country experienced a steep economic decline, so much so that the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean dubbed it “the lost half-decade.”

Amid concerns about emerging market woes, Argentina’s new economic crisis made global headlines earlier this month. A new consumer price index registered rampant inflation of 3.7 percent in January — the highest official rate since 2002. Argentina has also yet to work out a debt settlement with its foreign financiers after the last default in 2001. 

On Feb. 3, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner presented a plan to combat inflation, asking Argentines to watch for and purchase from a list of 140 products with fixed prices, available at participating supermarkets, appliance stores and gas stations. The initiative known as “Precios Cuidados” ("Price Watch") has a website and a mobile app that, according to its Facebook page, has already been downloaded more than 59,000 times.

The Precios Cuidados list is based on an agreement between the national government and local businesses meant to control and stabilize the cost of selected goods at affordable prices despite inflation and the peso’s instability. The fixed prices allow consumers to budget and stay within their spending limits when shopping for groceries and other household supplies.

Hearing about these grim events, I thought about my generation — friends and classmates who stayed in the country living all of their 20s and the better half of their 30s through horrific inflation and its consequences. What were their losses? How did they adapt?

A ‘gasolero’ lifestyle

In 1998, as inflation was going up, Argentine actor and producer Adrian Suar created a TV series called “Gasoleros.” The gasolero is a car that runs on diesel fuel, helping drivers spend less at the pump. It also stands for those who must live and adapt to the decline of the Argentine economy on a daily basis.

The TV show, which had off-the-charts ratings in Argentina, told the story of the Panigazzis, an impoverished middle-class family who owned an auto-repair shop in the capital, Buenos Aires, and survived as gasoleros. Soon the term became part of the mainstream vocabulary. Many of my friends and high school classmates had little spending money, budgeted like gasoleros and identified with the song by Argentine musician Gabriel Vicentico:

Gasoleros, no hay dinero, almas solas vagando por la ciudad

No me dejes solo gasolero, aunque me falte el dinero, tengo un sueño que llevar…

(Gasoleros, there is no money, lonely souls lost around the city

Don't leave me alone, gasolero, even when there is no money I still have a dream to carry…)

Even after high school, many of my friends remained in gasolero mode. Amid inflated food, transportation and housing prices that stymied upward mobility, they eked out a living on meager salaries in Argentine pesos.  

In order to ease black-market demand for U.S. dollars, Argentina allows those with a monthly income of 7,200 pesos ($900) or more to purchase up to $2,000 per month. But buying dollars as a saving measure each time the peso is devalued is not an option for those who live on limited income.

"This is not illogical given that exchange rates are so high,” said Gabriel Ortiz, a 29-year-old freelance designer from Buenos Aires, in a recent email interview. “But a salary of that amount is not very common, so this measurement is mostly benefiting those with higher incomes.”

Moreover, the volatility of the peso pushes low earners to spend all their disposable income. The crisis is creating “a generation that cannot grow or save,” according to Diana D., a 28-year-old visual artist who did not want to be identified with a full name. “We live on a day-to-day basis,” she added. “It’s better to spend the money than to save it because you never know how much the peso will be worth in the long run."

It is unlikely that a temporary price fix would bring about economic stability to Argentina.

Inflation is reflected in daily price hikes for food and other items. The peso plunged 19 percent in January from around 6.9 to 8 pesos per dollar in December, while prices went up by 3.7 percent, the highest increase in 11 years, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census. The crisis invited more scrutiny for the Kirchner administration, already struggling to address the country’s poverty and rising inequality.

On Feb. 10, Kirchner defended the Precios Cuidados program with a message posted on her Facebook page, suggesting that Argentines should help the government implement the fixed-price agreement. Alluding to the era of military dictatorship and the “dirty war” of the 1970s and early ’80s, Kirchner asked the nation to remain united and not to lose sight of what it took “to get here.” She encouraged consumers to use the watch list as a resource to compare prices with those in the agreement, and invited them to file complaints against stores that don’t honor the contract.

A temporary price fix is unlikely to bring about economic stability. Yet, given the country’s history of dictatorship, Argentines on a gasolero budget are giving the program their best shot, many sharing their experiences with “Price Watch” on Twitter. Others are more wary.

"Precios Cuidados exist because the government did not look out for inflation, currency, and emission,” Patricia Bullrich, who leads the civic coalition Union for All and represents the city of Buenos Aires in the Argentine Chamber of Deputies, wrote on Twitter.

In urban areas, public organizing and protests are common forms of voicing discomfort. The level of sociopolitical participation in the public sphere is a common denominator of those who live a gasolero lifestyle and are most affected by the economic flux.

As a result, Argentine consumers are increasingly taking to the streets to protest the unmitigated price hikes. On Feb. 7 thousands of people participated in the Apagón de Consumo (Consumer Blackout), which asked citizens not to make any purchases in supermarkets for 24 hours to protest the unmeasured rise in prices. Activists posted images on Twitter of empty aisles in stores around the country, encouraging more people to join the boycott.

Some Argentine economists have also questioned the economic rationale and sustainability of the Precios Cuidados. "This plan considers inflation as an independent phenomenon isolated from the other symptoms,” said Mercedes D'Alessandro, economist and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, in an email response last week. "It allows people to think that the sole cause of inflation is the power that supermarket businesses have over prices. This idea is difficult to sustain." 

Others say the opposition spearheads the negative reactions. In a recent op-ed published by Telam News Agency, Argentine economist Artemio Lopez argued that, despite the opposition's doomsday predictions, a similar program under President Juan Domingo Peron was successfully implemented in 1954 and 1974. “The measures taken then by the president ... to control prices in times of inflation managed to revert the situation, as inflation went from 38 percent in 1952 to 3.8 percent by 1954,” Lopez wrote.

Parks and recreation

In the 1990s, when Carlos Menem was president, my older sister was in her 20s. At the time, the exchange between the U.S. dollar and the Argentine peso was one to one. This enabled my sister’s generation to find decent jobs and enjoy some level of economic independence — saving, traveling and paying their own bills. But Menem's neoliberal policies were temporary fixes that did not solve the country’s external debt problem or prevent an impending hyperinflation. Unlike the ’90s youth who traveled to Europe or around the country during college breaks, my generation turned to the terraces, public parks and water fountains to beat the heat, gasolero style.

The effects of Argentina’s inflation are even harsher today. This summer is projected to be one of the hottest in 53 years. According to a study by Taylor Nelson Sofres Argentina, out of 1,000 households polled, 67 percent said they had no extra money to travel, even within Argentina. Despite this, some Argentines continue to improvise and find humor through all of it.

For example, an image of two young men in Lanus, a neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, circulated on Twitter in the aftermath of a flooding in the area. In the photo caption, the duo, unable to afford a trip to the beach, refer to their flooded home patio as "Lanus Beach." The image was plastered around social media by neighbors highlighting a gasolero way of adapting to the crisis with humor.  

Others are finding creative ways to cope with inflation and the resulting economic uncertainty. “When (the price of) a bottled water goes up, I buy another brand,” said Belen Ianuzzi, 35, a literature teacher at the University of Buenos Aires. “I started buying naturally produced vegetables that are not transgenic, and snack and yerba products in small work cooperatives, because I think it's a good time to stimulate small or community economies."

Gasoleros might lack economic stability, but they remain creative. Books and other cultural objects have been a luxury reserved for a few who could afford to purchase imported literature. In response to the economic crisis of 2001, Eloisa Cartonera, a neighborhood cooperative in Buenos Aires, founded a publishing house asking several Latin American writers to waive copyrights to some of their books. The cooperative reprinted books locally, using materials bought from cartoneros, or “cardboard people," who make a living by selling scraps of cardboard and paper collected from garbage bins. Many struggling Argentine publishing houses followed this example, adapting to the economy by going digital or using cheaper printing materials.

The gasolero lifestyle is now second nature to those who grew up knowing nothing but inflation and economic crisis. My generation lost economic mobility, having few chances to save money in pesos, few traveling options and a limited budget. But they remained creative and rolled with the inflation punches.

The question now is: Absent lasting price controls, can they continue to weather the storm?  

Carolina Drake is a New York-based writer and freelance journalist from Argentina. She has written for Latino Rebels and several publications focusing on Latin America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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