Writer Swapnil Mindhe is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this article.
Awaiting Spring: Inflation Amongst Buenos Aires’ Poor
“Inflation will decline drastically in the second half of the year. I feel that we are on the first step towards joy and that the [inflationary] pressure is going to reduce.”
- Mauricio Marcia, Current President of Argentina
Weekdays at Plaza Constitución resemble a form of melee. Packs of workers cut jagged lines through an assortment of sex workers, street vendors and heavy drug users. Most are immigrants to Argentina and depending on the hour, they are either making their way to or from their homes in the poor provincial south of Buenos Aires. Arriving or departing they walk through Constitución, infamously one of the most dangerous neighborhoods within walking distance of Buenos Aires’ Central Business District.
My stint in Constitución began in April this year as Autumn began its decline. By June the neighborhood had become my own indicator of the inflation crisis currently plaguing Argentina. In my own building several apartments above me were being subleted thrice over and with the onset of winter I learned to shop further from home to avoid the homeless who had begun stalking supermarkets queues asking for whatever money or food you could spare. With a morning commute that involved passing corners where people had taken the street as home I realized I was seeing the physical effect an unassuming economic variable can have.
Inflation is the old ghost of Argentina’s young history. The last 30 years have been replete with its specter and Argentines now in their forties can quickly recall stories of supermarkets being emptied as the costs of goods were broadcasted over the sound system, increases were too fast for the standard ticket change. Argentines born this side of the millennia haven’t been exempt either. When Mauricio Macri was elected president in December 2015 he inherited an economy that was averaging 25% annual inflation and clocked in a 4.4% monthly rate of inflation for February and March this year. Constitución’s story in this larger narrative came into play when the Macri administration decided to roll-back a series of utility subsidies specific to Buenos Aires. The hope was to fast-track a true cost adjustment however the immediate result was a huge and sudden increase in the prices of electricity, gas and water. This overnight change came especially heavy on Constitución’s working population, a majority of which were undocumented and typically exploited “black workers”.
The neighborhood hasn’t always been a form of inflationary yardstick. In fact it has experienced its own rag-to-riches story. On the west face of the central plaza is the now stagnant Constitución Plaza Hotel, a former 5-star magnet for honey mooning farmers. The hotel is a symbol for the wealth once associated with the neighborhood before an outbreak of yellow fever sent Buenos Aires’ elite on an exodus to the north of the city. Constitución’s only hotels now are “worker hotels”, essentially re-purposed 20th century manors. From 5 room houses to 30 room fixtures these hotels provide initial accommodation for the neighborhood’s newest residents who arrive daily to sustain the capital’s constant growth.
Living five blocks from the plaza I was given a personal introduction to the effect inflation was having on Constitución’s residents. In fact their personal narratives become too intimate one night when I had one of my neighbors over for a drink. Tasting the cheapest Argentina’s northern vineyards had to offer I heard the front door buzzer waft up from the street. I ignored it like all the other strange and terrible sounds the street proffered but its persistence broke me. “Oh that,” came the reply when I asked, “it’s one of the kids of a guy who lives here. He’s a junkie and every few months he comes around looking for money, his dad has probably run out by now.” It was a strange but familiar story, but it was also 3 in the morning. After asking how much longer it would go on for, “till he gets bored”, I figured it was like bad traffic and tried not to think what would happen when he went looking somewhere else for the same.
As June gave to July the unending price increases drove a strong public backlash. In retrospect it was naive to assume otherwise, Argentina’s last 60 years have been dominated by a social politick entrenched in worker and civic activism. With even major franchises such as McDonalds and Starbucks adjusting their prices the anger that had been confined to traditional public spaces of protest such as Plaza de Mayo broke on to major commuter roads. The shrill sound of the traditional Argentinean protest device, a pan or pot hit with a spoon, became commonplace as it filled the otherwise windy Buenos Aires winter. Wandering through the din I felt the city had somehow become complicit in the public’s collective roar.
Yet somehow Constitución was bare of this sentiment. Workers still marched diligently to and from the station and joined the crowd en-route to their blue collar positions. Being at the brunt of inflationary pressures didn’t seem to drive what would be a logically aggravated response. Instead the discontentment of the middle class was alien in Constitución, what with it’s the classic assemblage of red light characteristics. It and its population displayed that peculiar strand of weariness akin to the third world working class. With a residence that included single leg amputees working street corners, crutches and all, Constitución was saying one thing – the effect of economic hardship is relative. For those with little, a little less is only a little felt.
When the Macri administration removed the utility subsidies for Buenos Aires residents it had done so with the promise that inflation would begin to decline by the second half of the year. Half way through July with no such break in sight a feeling of helplessness was on the rise, the final result of years of like-situations. With the government imploring Argentines to “hold out” the middle class hunkered down for the promised Spring and cut costs wherever they could. For Constitución, a neighborhood that was known so as to avoid, it was business as usual.
When August finally broke I found myself taking the round route to the center. Winter was still clinging on so I walked a brisk S through the quieter residential streets that gave Constitución its “prostitution” nickname. Along Avenida Garay, up Calle Salta, through to Calle Cochabamba – I emerged to see prostitutes of all sexual orientations. Business was open all hours here and one quickly learned the system for transactions. You simply drove alongside your chosen professional, exchanged a few choice words, and drove into one of the many hotels through a discreet tunneled entrance while your counterpart took to the back door in. The majority of workers were transsexual who had fled more conservative areas for the relative safety of Buenos Aires only to face financial insecurity once settled. Forced into the only occupation available to them they lined corners while families and children passed by making a strange but calm scene. Like a poised tranquility somehow things had an order and even if I didn’t know exactly what it kept it that way I was happy to follow. I guess in the end I was in the same play as everyone else, waiting for the long expected spring.
By Swapnil Mindhe