Return after the Storm: Argentina Recovering from Its Biggest Economic Crash

By Pineda, Suan | The World and I, October 2006 | Go to article overview
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Return after the Storm: Argentina Recovering from Its Biggest Economic Crash


Pineda, Suan, The World and I


Romina Bruno walks swiftly through a chic hotel lobby with dozens of keys dangling in her hand and the sound of muffled voices coming out of a walkie-talkie.

The lean, prim and shorthaired twenty-nine-year-old Buenos Aires native may be a clear reflection of Argentina in 2006: fast-paced, young, expectant and cautious.

With a secure job in a country that just five years ago fell into its worst economic crisis, Bruno is one of the 30,000 Argentines who have returned to the country from the United States between 2002 and 2006, according to the Argentine National Migration Administration.

Nearly 300,000 Argentines left the country after the 2001 recession. Now, the return of tens of thousands of emigres is another hopeful sign of the country's economic recovery.

Though Bruno says she already had plans to leave the country before the economic crash, she left for Atlanta right after December 2001. Failing to renew her work visa, she returned in 2003.

The tightening of immigration control in recipient countries such as the United States and Spain, the difficulty in finding jobs and stability, and increasing news of Argentina's resurgence encouraged thousands to return, said Diego Melamed, author of Irse (Going Away), a book that addresses the Argentine diaspora after 2001.

Upon her arrival in Buenos Aires, Bruno encountered an unexpected but encouraging scenario. Just a few months after her return, she found a job at a hotel. And at the end of 2005, she became the housekeeping manager of the newly opened 725 Buenos Aires Hotel.

"The situation is improving," said Bruno, who remains cautious. "The economy is much better. At least that's what we're told." Economy, it seems, is a word already ingrained in Argentines' daily vocabulary.

During the nineties, the peso was coupled with the dollar. But by the end of 2001, the country's economy crashed after four years of recession. The government imposed a severe austerity plan. Bank accounts froze. Five presidents took office in ten days. The value of the peso dropped 75 percent. Riots and strikes took over the streets. Unemployment soared and 50 percent of the population fell below the poverty line.

Five years later, signs of recovery are clear, though fragile. Just in Buenos Aires, a city of eleven million people, the indicators of an economic rebound are visible: the booming hotel industry, the hospitality of taxi drivers--who only a couple of years ago were feared--and the luxurious shopping centers.

At the beginning of 2006, President Nestor Kirchner announced that the country's economy grew 9 percent in 2005. Tourism, an industry that boomed after the recession, generated three billion dollars that same year. Unemployment was 11 percent in early 2006, as opposed to more than 20 percent in 2002.

However, one-third of the population is below poverty line. A man looking through the garbage for bottles and cardboard with his son is as much a fixture of the night scene as the flamboyant and bright theater lights announcing the opening of Victor Victoria.

Melamed also attributes the massive return to a disorganized departure. "Many left without a plan, without knowing exactly where they were going, without realizing that leaving is not adding up the good of Argentina to the good of wherever they end up."

Many come back disillusioned.

"They emigrate with a European mentality and a Latin American wallet," Melamed said. "It's a double failure. You couldn't make it here and many can't make it there."

To leave or to stay

Every time Roberto Funes Ugarte sat down to read the Argentine newspapers in his Mexico City apartment, he had one wish.

"Every day I opened the papers and hoped I find good news, that there's a story about Argentina's economic growth, that the default decreased, that there're jobs. I always opened the newspapers with that expectation," he said.

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