When Argentina's miracle goes bust all you need is love


LETTER FROM BUENOS AIRES/Michael McCaughan: An army of trolley-pushers descends on my neighbourhood each evening, a relentless human tide tearing open rubbish bags in search of discarded food.

Each plastic bag is dispatched with professional indifference before the gaunt shadows rattle their way toward Constitucion station, where a train comes at 10.30 p.m., returning them to the outer margins of the city.

When I first got to know Buenos Aires five years ago, this proud city was the flagship of a first world nation which, due to a geographical oversight, had been mistakenly dumped alongside shabby neighbours like Bolivia and Paraguay.

Every citizen was a flourishing entrepreneur, tucking away dollars in one of the countless banks that sprang up across the city like temples of worship on the eve of the apocalypse. The poor were largely invisible, contained in villas miserias, grim shanty-towns terrorised by police and thieves.

The first world dream collapsed last year when Argentina formally declared itself bankrupt, victim of an economic miracle which proved nothing more than a confidence trick.

The banks closed their offices and froze people's savings, sending shock waves through society. It was a remarkable heist, an inside job that left mortgage-holders and pensioners penniless.

A year later, Portenos (city residents) talk of nothing else in the ice-cream parlours and pizzerias which make this city the most pleasant place in the world in which to do absolutely nothing.

I live in San Telmo, a bohemian barrio where second-rate writers rub shoulders with impoverished Peruvian immigrants. The latter are stuffed eight to a room in dingy hotels. A palpable sense of nostalgia wafts through open windows each evening as strange culinary odours blend with cumbia villera music, Latin America's answer to gangsta rap. The classic Torcuato Tasso tango dive is around the corner while the Café Britanico, a century-old coffee house haunted by the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges, throbs smoke-filled vitality until dawn.

I left my previous neighbourhood, Floresta, after an ugly incident in which a police officer shot three youths dead in my local bar. The tipsy teenagers committed the unpardonable crime of smirking at television images of a police officer being punched by an angry crowd, shortly after the forces of law and order had perpetrated a massacre against peaceful protestors. The indignant officer calmly delivered a bullet to the heads of the three youths, then dragged each body onto the street, feigning an incident.

I flicked through Clarin newspaper which carried an article about a bizarre game played by school children aged six to 13. The "alphabet game" involves running a blade across the back of the hand while someone recites the alphabet, to see who can bear the most pain.

It was time to call up my local therapist, Ms Laura Bonaparte, who lost most of her family to the repressers of yesteryear. "Every nation has a violent past," she explained, "but we have never taken responsibility for it, so it keeps repeating, eating away at us like a perpetual nightmare." Argentina is a nation of angry individuals howling with a deep inner pain best articulated by its children, condemned, as children are, to articulate the unsaid.

In search of a little inner peace I headed out to a nearby bank for a yoga class. When the economic crisis broke last year, citizens began taking control of abandoned workplaces, determined to put them to productive use.

The local Banco Mayo, which once hosted large amounts of cash, now hosts a range of free community activities, from homework support circles to carpentry classes. "The bosses fled like rats when the profits dried up," growled an old man on guard duty. I admired his eloquent turn of phrase but he confessed to stealing the quote from a Trotskyite political pamphlet.

Buenos Aires is buzzing with rebel energy as citizens lose the fear which kept them silent during the military dictatorship (1976-83) in which a generation of activists were murdered. The need to talk to neighbours and strangers launched a thousand local assemblies which operate under a single, unifying slogan: que se vayan todos (get rid of them all), a message to the nation's corrupt, political class.

Since the state coffers were formally declared empty last year, citizens have turned to each other for economic support through barter clubs, edible gardens and other small-scale initiatives.

The current collapse dates back to the incompetence of the military regime which tripled the external debt and paved the way for president Carlos Menem (1989-99) who sold off state assets, leaving the country en bolas, or naked, to borrow a local phrase.

Once upon a time, middle-class Argentinians went Christmas shopping in the elegant Florida Street pedestrian walkway, but this week locals were flocking to informal markets held in dozens of parks across the city. People have emptied their homes, selling household junk alongside some spectacularly creative handcrafts. Spoons, keys and forks have become elaborate bracelets while one enterprising soul has taken old typewriters apart and sculpted characters from literary legends like Don Quixote.

My evening stroll ended at the Plaza de Mayo, where the Mothers of the Disappeared were holding their annual 48-hour resistance march in front of the presidential palace. I walked round the square, which was ringed with hundreds of police and attack dogs, growling and snapping at their leashes. In a nation without memory the brave mothers forego sleep to pass on their secret message - all you need is love.