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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 15:04 GMT
Why I am leaving Argentina
Two women pot-banging
Pot-banging has become a symbol of discontent
Luisa, a resident of Buenos Aires, explains to BBC News Online why she is leaving Argentina after 20 years of living there.

In less than two months time, it will be 20 years since Argentina invaded the Falkland/Malvinas Islands.

Over the last 20 years, so many things have happened here. We have been on an endless roller-coaster trip.

I enjoyed the highs, shrieked at every turn and shared the lows, but I now feel the ride is too heady for me. I am getting off.

The insane war in the Falklands, launched by power-crazy generals, was lost to seasoned and motivated British troops.

The terrible silence that fell upon us has never quite lifted. Nobody ever talked about the war. Nobody ever talks about their failures in Argentina.

Hopes of a democracy

Soon after the war, the mood swung to elation - the military were on their way out.

In came President Alfonsin, albeit by a narrow margin. But he was so respectable, so different from the Peronists and the military, so full of encouraging words.

Plaza de Mayo mothers protest for lost children
Plaza de Mayo protesters were against the military
But then, things did not turn quite as expected. The unions were creating trouble and 13 general strikes paralysed the country.

The economy wasn't faring well either. The currency changed at least once in a short period of time. Everybody was a millionaire, but your millions were only many zeros.

After that the military made a comeback. Only months after they had been put on trial for their human rights violations, there were tanks in the streets.

During an infamous Easter weekend people gathered at the Plaza de Mayo to support President Alfonsin.

It seemed as if the worse was averted. "The house is in order," he told us.

But over the following months and years, each new rebellion was followed by further concessions to the military.

The economy was in shambles, mid-term elections had been lost and hyperinflation was rampant.

Menem's glitz

Still, for the first time in many years, one constitutional president followed another.

President Carlos Menem
President Menem seemed a breath of fresh air
At least presidential elections were called, and although Carlos Menem, the Peronist candidate, looked and sounded unsavoury to half the country, he won.

But President Menem surprised us, his huge sideburns and ponchos were soon gone, only to be replaced by Italian suits and hair implants.

It was not just his face that was changing, his rhetoric and policies went through an intense facelift in a frenzy of cosmetic surgery of various sorts.

Gone was the "productive revolution" and the "salariazo" (salary boost), in were privatisations, "carnal relations" with the US, all sorts of imports and a feeling of fresh air, after the stale odour left by the final days of poor old Alfonsin.

An example to others

So Menem was not so bad, after all. Argentina was becoming respected by other countries and was made an example to follow by other emerging nations.


Argentina was doing its homework well and it was the darling of the banking community and big business

It was doing its homework well and it was the darling of the banking community and big business.

Money was flowing in, factories were opening and roads, phones, water services were seriously upgraded.

At the same time, almost half a million government employees were sacked, public hospitals and education were downgraded, and many other people lost their jobs.

But for a long time, it did not seem to matter, Argentina was thriving, with a growth rate of 4% per annum, and would soon become the 'first rate country' it should have always been, they said.

Inertia

The signs of mismanagement and corruption were there all the time, some even flaunted them, while others openly criticised government policies.

Horacio Verbitsky wrote a book "Stealing for the Crown", a scathing exposť on how the country was being pillaged, which sold over half a million copies, yet nobody went out on the streets to curb corruption.


It was just that the glare of imported goods and brilliant speeches lulled the middle class into a rather comfortable passiveness.

Inflation was no longer an issue and your pesos were worth as much as your dollars, so you could travel the world, if you had a taste for it.

If you did, you realised Argentina was of the most expensive places on earth, but who cared, really?

Nothing has ever changed in Argentina. The country has been mismanaged and savagely raped by politicians and businessmen alike for generations.

It was just that the glare of imported goods and brilliant speeches lulled the middle class into a rather comfortable passiveness.

The rich and powerful were having their field day and the poor masses for a brief moment also shared the prosperity and were taken in by the promises.

'Eternal' debt

But the foreign debt never ceased to increase, even though the country's crown jewels were auctioned off in the form of privatisations.

Protest against President Fernando de la Rua
Protesters rebelled against President De la Rua
It seemed as if this was rather an "eternal" debt than an "external" debt.

The dream dimmed once again when it became apparent that far too many people were jobless, that domestic production was almost vanishing, crime was rising and politicians were too greedy.

So when Fernando de la Rua came around, promising little other than honesty and a lacklustre government, that made him very attractive to those disaffected with the glitz of the Menem era.

Unfortunately, by then Argentina needed his discreet demeanour plus much more leadership, a more intense social policy and less kow-tows to the International Monetary Fund.

But who would have imagined that people were ready to throw overboard the constitutional system that had been so cherished 18 years earlier?

Atmosphere of fear

The ride continued on a fast descending curve. There wasn't even a World Cup to cheer Argentines up, something all too important in the land of the "hand of God".

A pot-banging protest
The middle class joined in the pot-banging protests
Today, tempers are flaring any provocation. On Monday people at a train station fought with police and tried to start fires because they were waiting for hours until a group of protesters left the tracks.

Every day banks are spray-painted, as the long lines of people waiting to get their money out, and if possible, to buy US dollars, get rowdy.

It is also true that there are signs of increased solidarity. Churches from various denominations are joining hands to help the neediest.

Many people are joining the pot banging demonstrations out of genuine concern for the lack of government policies.

The middle class, usually too blasť to do anything but complain privately, no longer stands idle while its savings melt before its very eyes.

Time to leave

But the last two months have just been too heady for me.

I have put up with more than 20 years of all sorts of deceits, and I no longer have the guts to keep on waiting for whatever comes next.

I am too tired and afraid, and not just of the future - the present is bad enough.

I had many good years here, with true thrills and did well for myself for years.

But it is well over now. So, like many others I am starting to pack our belongings, sell what we can and cheer up the relatives who are staying behind.

W are slowly saying goodbye to the things we loved here, the places that will not be forgotten when we finally leave Argentina in search of a quieter, more fulfilling life elsewhere.

Probably, we will backtrack following the footsteps of our grandparents, who were surely just as sad and hopeful when they quit their homeland.

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