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Power and Love in Argentina
by Eugenia Lerner

Peggy Kemp asked me to write something about the situation in Argentina. So here I am, wondering where to start.

In Argentina, as in the rest of the world, many people were expecting some sort of chaos during the new year of 2000. This became real a year later during December 2001, though it was not a cybernetic chaos. It was a political, economical, institutional and moral crisis. As in every crisis, it didn't actually start in December 2001, it only blew up that month. There were many factors involved but what triggered it was the economic factor. During the nineties our economy had an apparent flourishing situation and an apparent strong "peso", our local currency. One peso equaled one dollar and investments and transactions were made in US dollars. That has a meaning in itself: why would a country have its economy based on a foreign currency? This "strong peso" allowed many people to have an unusual buying power and an apparent steady economy. Before, we had had a very unstable economy, a series of devaluations and a high inflation. So during that apparent stability many people decided to ask for loans and made investments in US dollars. Why do I say "apparent" stability? Because this "one to one" (one peso = one dollar) was artificially maintained. This artificial money equivalence couldn't last any longer.

On the other hand, the banks didn't "have" the actual dollar bills, because they accepted pesos and converted them virtually into dollars. So the "one to one" was in fact virtual in both senses, in terms of bills and in terms of value. In one week or so, the peso had an enormous devaluation: one dollar became 4 pesos, which means a 400% devaluation (today the exchange rate is 1 dollar = 3 pesos). To make a long story short, the banks were not able to return the US dollars . They didn't have dollar bills and they didn't want or weren't able to return the equivalent in pesos after the devaluation.

What happened then? The banks closed for some time and the economy plunged into a tremendous chaos. When the banks re-opened, people were allowed to extract small amounts of pesos each week and there was a tremendous uncertainty about the possibility of recovering their savings and how much of the deposits would be returned, if any.

But this is only one side of the situation. The other side was the high unemployment rate during the past years, plus the disintegration of local industries. Most of the consumer goods were imported during the nineties and this destroyed our local industries. Thus, our situation was a society with no money, no jobs and no local industries.

In respect to the political and moral issues, my observation is that our politicians were not acting on behalf of the country's interest and that there was a massive corruption. The corruption was also installed in the juridical system. Many measures were taken for personal interests instead of acting on behalf of the community's well-being. What was the citizensŤ reaction during the nineties? Although there were voices in opposition and bright people that realized what was going on, the community in general, as a whole, was not aware of what was really happening. The people who had jobs had a better buying power than years before and many people, although not everybody of course, believed totally or partially in the fairy tale told by the government: that we were entering the First World and becoming a stronger country.

In December 2001 we woke up from this fairy tale to a nightmare, many things collapsed in a huge crisis, similar in a way to the big depression of the thirties. My understanding is though, that this was a wake up call for all of us as a community and an opportunity to undergo a deep healing process in many senses. But this wake up call had a great cost.

After the said economic measures were taken, there was a huge public demonstration, the largest we ever had and involved different social sectors. People from all over the country decided to go out to the streets and claim for a change. I feel moved remembering this now. On December 19, 2001, at 8 pm a massive amount of people took their domestic weapons: spoons and pans, went out to their balconies, into the streets and gathered in many public places. An intense rhythm began with the beating of the pans. The beating went on and on, accompanied by shouts and by flagging homemade posters. Claims and demands were expressed. These weapons were aimed mainly at President Fernando De la Rœa demanding his resignation. The massive claim was about recovering the bank deposits and also to put an end to the political and juridical corruption, an end to the high level of unemployment and an end to the abuses committed against our country by the International Monetary Fund and other International banks (abuses that had obviously been allowed by the Argentine governments).

It was unbelievable. I suppose that many people were beating pots and pans with feelings of fear and anger. But what I felt was that in the midst of that nightmare, the beating was like a rhythm of life and love that held us together. Beatings to me were saying "we are together", "we have the power to make a change", "we take responsibility on this and will do something about it". I saw many people starting with anger and fear and after a while, signs of joy and enthusiasm showed in their faces and bodies. What was the result of this massive protest? The next day the President presented his resignation. Unfortunately not everything was done peacefully and there were 20 people killed by the police during these public demonstrations.

That was the beginning of a new stage, a very critical one, a transition. The result of the economic collapse in our society was devastating. Adults and children were literally starving throughout the country and still are. People on the streets were and still are asking for food and money. People started to seek for food in the garbage. The amount of homeless people increased. Hospitals ran out of supplies and medicines and people died for lack of proper assistance and they still do. Stores and businesses of all kinds had to close. The taxis had to face hours and hours without passengers, etc. etc. More and more unemployment.

Fear, panic, anger and depression were part of the response. As the provisional President Duhalde didn't take effective and quick measures to deal with the situation and critical decisions were delayed, the uncertainty grew further. But on the other hand, another type of response spread: solidarity and positive action on the side of the community. There was a meager initial help from the government aiming at the starving people, but the major help came from the community in itself. The people began to organize in groups of all sizes in order to give different kinds of aid: food, clothes, medicines, etc. Personally, I expanded my healing circle and gave different workshops for free, because this was the type of help I felt more drawn at.

I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Dr. Serge Kahili King for his support and advice during this critical period of my life. I had at that time all my money in the bank and because of the situation, most of my patients couldn't afford to pay my fees. He advised me to do my work for free and to expand the healing circle. Which I did. That healing circle was magical for all the volunteers who helped me, for the participants and for myself as well. We felt the support of the group, the confidence and hope growing in all of us and we could see how this group served as a model to expand the pallet of alternatives, solidarity and creativity. Other groups organized an interesting and effective trading system, in which people traded different products and services among themselves, without using money.

Nearly two years have passed from that historical day and things are developing better for some, but still very bad for more than 50% of the population. There were many public demonstrations after December 2001 and some of the claims are being heard. There were around 200,000 legal demands against the banks and the State during the end of year 2001 and beginning of 2002. This has no precedent in our country.

Since May, we have a new elected President. Hopefully this Administration will be more effective and less corrupt than the previous ones, but there is still more time needed to really know. In my personal opinion and feeling, I like this President more than any previous we had. What is even more important is that politicians are more aware that the population is more involved, conscious and active than ever before.

The rates of unemployment decreased a bit. The government and the banks came to an agreement about how to return the deposits. The arrangements included the possibility of recovering part of the deposits during this year or to recover the total amount in 10 or 12 years from now. We don't know if that will finally become real, but this is the agreement. Legal demands are still waiting for a decision at the Supreme Court. There was one judge removed from the Supreme Court, and there is at least one more that will be probably removed in the near future. The Congress approved a law to review all the crimes made by the military governments during the sixties and seventies. There were 30.000 people killed at that time for political reasons, tortures and other atrocities. There was a Big Trial in the eighties on the military system, in which many military were convicted. But President Menem granted them amnesty during the nineties. So the new President NŽstor Kirchner wants to renew the trials and penalties, which is necessary to heal the history of our country and to bring justice to our community.

As I said before, we still have many poor people, around 50 % or more of the population, children and adults dying of starvation, hospitals lacking basic supplies and medicines; but I think there is much more hope. More hope in what we as a community are able to do. More hope because I feel that Argentineans love Argentina more than ever before.

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