On our drive out to San Antonio de Areco we were somewhat surprised (because we had no idea) to discover a vast illegal favela-like shantytown just blocks from the high-fashion stores and relative luxury of Palermo, Recoleta and Retiro. It’s called Villa 31 and clings to either side of the busy north-west bound autopista with some 40,000 residents slammed into a narrow labyrinth of make-shift brick homes leaning against each other as if for support – remove one of ‘em and the whole lot comes down (some ingeniously using external spiral staircases to climb to ever smaller, narrower rooms – Ant).
There’s only improvised running water, sewerage and grid power here and therefore, not surprisingly, it’s one of the most dangerous places to find yourself in BA, a focus of the drug trade.
I read today there are US$320M plans financed by the World Bank to relocate some of these people into 1,350 new homes – elsewhere of course – and government plans to urbanise the place with proper infrastructure and services including schools and medical facilities, but having seen the scale of this barrio I can only imagine just how hard the challenge will be, not just for the authorities but for the residents who know no other home.
Buenos Aires hosts the G20 summit in a couple of weeks (the day after we leave, thank goodness – Ant) bringing many world leaders to town, including Trump, (will he stay in his hotel room, keep his hair dry and tweet? Ant), Xi, Putin, Macron, May, Merkel and…. Morrison. BTW, this will be the first time a British PM has been in Argentina since the end of the Falklands War so not surprisingly the issue of the Malvinas has become front-page news yet again. The leaders will be met no doubt by massive demonstrations across the city and a lock-down, focusing the attention once again on the haves VS the have nots. I have to say that the longer we’ve been here the more obvious are the signs of economic struggle. It wasn’t clear when we first got here – rose-tinted sunglasses perhaps – but now, after almost 2 months, it’s become obvious (the insistence on cash, the wariness around credit cards being two examples). These are indeed troubled tough times for Argentina that may well get a lot worse.
Further signs of trouble. In the past few days we’ve had some scammers hit the area – drawn by the soccer crowds, urchin-like characters that hustle passers-by, including us, and hassle people in the local supermarket to buy them stuff (crisps and cans of beer which the supermarket manager won’t sell them), playing chicken with local traffic looking for parking spots and then sprawling themselves on the pavement outside the house feigning sleep. They appear to want to help you find a parking spot then hit you up with a cash demand to ‘protect’ your car from being vandalised… it’s all rather disturbing and according to locals a sight that’s becoming more and more common as the economy contracts, the peso bombs and inflation soars skywards. Meanwhile, the flip of this of course is that foreigners, particularly those with US$ readily available, are finding things increasingly (read daily) cheaper and cheaper.
There are no end of illegal money changers in town, particularly on Calle Florida, all with their own market stall cry, ‘Cambio Cambio!’ There are hundreds of ’em standing just a metre or so apart from each other. I can’t imagine that a tourist, or anyone else for that matter would, in the their right mind, willingly hand over a wad of US$ on a busy street and trust one of these fellas, but some must do, for why are there so many!
We know of one business person who receives payment on holiday apartment letting in US$ via Western Union but travels to a Western Union branch in Uruguay as they pay out in US$, whereas in Argentina they’ll convert into pesos….so understandably the trip is worthwhile doing!
Another gob-smacking fact here is that people buy and sell property in BA in CASH and mostly in US$, and mostly through shady money-launderers!!! Can you seriously imagine fronting up to a complete stranger with several hundred thousand dollars IN CASH, in a large suitcase perhaps, willingly handing over and expecting this all to work smoothly? But it’s common practice here. You wouldn’t dream of getting a bank involved or worse still, getting a mortgage….for at 70% interest rates and climbing you’d have to be mad.
We had lunch yesterday with some English-speaking locals in, of all places, a British Curry House called Mash. The owners, a couple of guys, one Argentine and one British (living here for almost 20 years) own and run the joint. So yesterday, Sunday, as the restaurant was closed, they invited us to join their friends for a slap-up British roast, complete with all the trimmings – Yorkshire puddings for the beef and crackling for the pork. Heaven.
The conversation inevitably turned to the economy and how, only in recent years, things have turned from bad to worse. Just a few years ago you could have dinner in a restaurant for under 30 pesos – that’s worth now US$0.84c or GBP 0.65. That bill is now likely to be 1000 pesos. As previously mentioned, the SUBTE used to cost maybe 6 pesos but now it’s 12 pesos – which btw, is still incredibly cheap – that’s just 26p boosted to 47c! Wages haven’t increased, in fact, if you’re lucky enough to have a job, they’ve decreased, so you can imagine that not only is living now a daily challenge but any savings you’d have in the bank have dwindled to nothing. So we now experience daily demonstrations, national strikes and, increasingly, poor folk desperately trying to eke out a living, however they can. It’s heartbreaking.