The woman was screaming in my face. Her daughter stood beside her, staring at the ground. Her mother wanted money. I gave her all I had, 10 pesos, but as I stepped past her she gripped my arm, her eyes huge with desperation. My offering wasn’t enough. She needed 60 pesos to pay for her daughter’s medication.
The year was 2002, on a street corner in Buenos Aires. Months before the Argentine government had devalued the country’s currency by two-thirds. Any dollars you had in the bank were converted into the devalued peso. So while you’d gone to bed with $1000 in the bank, you woke up the next morning with one thousand pesos. It was government-sanctioned robbery.
I thought about this on Monday morning, when I attended a press screening of Michael Moore’s Capitalism – a love story which opens on Friday. Moore’s broadside on how Bush steered billions of tax dollars into Wall Street’s coffers brought crashing back to me the violence and the absurdity of the Argentine economic crisis.
As I sat in the Broadway cinema, I was transported back to coming out of my Buenos Aires apartment building at night to find women and children going through our rubbish bags. They’d hold up rotten food to the street light, inspect soiled garments. Dogs were abandoned on street corners or thrown out of cars. At the worst of the crisis, shop owners posted employees on the street corner to watch out for mobs getting ready to loot their shelves. Gangs kidnapped children and demanded a ransom be paid in the next 24 hours or your child would be killed.
The most haunting image was also allegedly a manufactured one. A mob of shanty town dwellers set upon a cow that had escaped from an over-turned van and in front of a national newspaper photographer cut the terrified animal into pieces with barbed wire. Rumors suggested it was orchestrated by anti-government unions.