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 Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 08:29 GMT
Argentina's crisis revisited
From left to right: Ellen, her grandson Felix, her son Julian, Esteban, her granddaughter Mora and her son Sebastian
The Popper family in Argentina

At the beginning of this year, BBC News Online interviewed a group of Argentines about life in the eye of an economic storm.

The mood was bleak and many were depressed by Argentina's humiliating slide into penury.

Over the year the country's economy has shrunk by more than 10%, while its currency has lost nearly three quarters of its value.

Circumstances have been rough, but people adjust themselves

Esteban Popper
Argentina's people are still suffering, but to some extent the storm has subsided.

"The truckload falls into place during the trip," says Esteban Popper, a retired business man, quoting an old Argentine saying.

"Circumstances have been rough, but people adjust themselves."

Last week, we re-visited our Argentines to discover how life has changed during 2002.

Click below for the individual stories:

The retired couple with little hope

Esteban and Ellen Popper are a retired couple living in Buenos Aires.

Since we last spoke, Mrs Popper's son and family have emigrated to Israel.

Last February the prospect of her son's departure had made her sad. Now it's a reality.

Unemployed demonstrate in Buenos Aires
Millions are unemployed
"The Argentines were born depressed," says her husband, Mr Popper. "This country has been marked by melancholy. Just listen to the tango."

The Poppers belong to Argentina's once prosperous middle classes.

Earlier this year, many of their compatriots took the streets to bang pots, embittered by new regulations that barred them from withdrawing their savings from the country's banks.

"The middle classes don't go out to dine anymore or to the cinema," says Mrs Popper.

Together the couple collect a pension of 310 pesos (£55; $88) a month and have been forced to supplement it by mortgaging their farm in the country.

"There was not enough to buy my husband's medicine, so we had to mortgage the farm."

'Ghosts in the night'

Earlier in the year, Mrs Popper was concerned about the "marginalised" people with no jobs. Months later, many of them now sort through rubbish for a living.

Argentina's paper industry has experienced a revival following hikes in the cost of paper imports. The demand for pulp has spawned a cottage industry.

Ellen Popper and her grandson
There is big, big depression here

Ellen Popper
"All you see around town are people going from refuse bag to refuse bag taking out any little bits of paper," she says.

"They are like ghosts in the night - it is very sad to see."

She is disillusioned by the country's politicians, and does not believe there will be an economic recovery while the Peronists remain in power.

By contrast, Mr Popper gives President Eduardo Duhalde and the economy minister Roberto Lavagna "8+" for their management of the economy.

However, he does not hold out any hope for the country's upcoming elections.

"Plus ça change," he says. "But that is probably a symptom of Argentine melancholy."

The office worker who lost his money

Federico O'Conor works for a pharmaceutical company and is studying for marketing exams in his spare time.

"Since the beginning of the year, the mood has changed," he says.

Everyone is feeling that they have to lose something

Federico O'Conor
"We're having a little summer. There has been small growth in the economy and the exchange rate with the dollar hasn't changed much."

When the government devalued the peso last January, Federico's dollar savings in the bank lost much of their value.

The savings were turned into pesos, and he was not allowed to access them, as the government introduced draconian measures to forestall a run on the banks.

Since then he has been able to withdraw his money "little-by-little" and changed it back into dollars.

The economic crisis also forced him to cancel any plans to travel abroad. The punitive cost of foreign travel has seen many Argentines flock to domestic resorts.

"I know my country more than I used to," he says wryly.


But he is philosophical. "I don't think my case is a very good example of someone who has suffered. I still have my job.

"Not being able to travel is a nice problem compared to other problems in Argentina.

"Many people are poor and children in the provinces are starving."

Celia Contreras, 15, left, holds her two-month-old son in Garupa, in the province of Misiones
In the Misiones province this year, 13 children have died from malnutrition
He is also frustrated by the government's protracted negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to borrow money.

"They should break with the IMF or accept what they impose. They shouldn't waste time while people are starving."

His fear in February of imminent anarchy has dulled. However, he is still wary in case Carlos Menem is chosen by his party to stand as the Peronist candidate in the general elections.

"If he wins [the party elections] there could be anarchy. The masses will vote for him because he is seen as the champion of the poor.

"But the middle classes don't like him and there will be many protests for and against him."

The interpreter who fled abroad

Carmen is a 49-year-old Uruguayan, who spent 19 years in Argentina. In February, she left to work abroad as a freelance interpreter.

"It is not all wine and roses," Carmen says of her decision to emigrate to Belgium.

"I moved from a 170 square metre apartment in a posh section of Buenos Aires to a 60 metre flat in a so-so neighbourhood.

"I had somebody to do all the housework and now I do not, but above all I had many friends and here I have made too few."

Carmen works mainly for the European Union in Brussels, but says her work is less riveting than it was in Argentina where she was a freelance interpreter for the government.

"I was a general and now I'm a foot soldier, but the money is good."

She is also grateful for the chance to start again after the uncertainty of her previous life.

A country of contradictions

In August Carmen returned to Argentina for a brief visit.

"I was shocked by the number of people roaming the streets in search for anything they can sell from the garbage cans."

So much going down the drain, not just for us, but for everybody we know

But at the same time, she was struck by contradictions.

"Flights to ski resorts were full last winter, and most long weekends have seen brisk business at tourist destinations.

"Compared to only a year ago, prices are dirt cheap if you have dollars at hand."

"And in trendy areas, restaurants are still full. A friend of mine, who is a trained psychiatrist, believes middle class people need to spend the little money they can save to help retain their dignity."

Despite her decision to find a new life overseas, Carmen is optimistic that the Argentine economy will recover.

"I still believe Argentina is no Ethiopia. It has minerals, oil, agricultural products and wine.

"It should be able to pick up the pieces. But I don't know when - maybe in five or 10 years."

The website designer home alone

Fernando Brischetto is a 32-year old freelancer who sets up gaming websites.

Fernando resigned from his full-time job at a computer gaming magazine in January.

He lost confidence in the management and decided to go it alone, working from home.

Fernando Brischetto
Fernando would always come back to Argentina
"It has been difficult as there are not many jobs around and people don't want to pay in dollars anymore," he says.

However, Fernando is hopeful that the situation will improve. "The economy has to get better - it is so bad it couldn't get any worse."

He is also critical of the International Monetary Fund, which has so far resisted lending more money to Argentina.

"They helped Uruguay but not Argentina. I can understand in some ways because of what happened here and because the politicians are corrupt.

"But I don't think you can let people die because of that. There are people starving here."

Less justice, more trust?

Fernando says one of the worst things about Argentina's crisis is the lack of justice.

"Our rights have been taken away - we couldn't even take out our own money [from the banks]."

Nevertheless, he has been reassured by the recent and partial lifting of banking controls, which has allowed people to access some of their savings again.

"People didn't rush to take their money out - I think people are starting to trust in the banks more.

"They are also not rushing to buy dollars like they did a year ago."

Fernando's fiancée from New York has decided to move to Argentina despite the problems. "She thinks it is a better place to live," he says.

"And I'm not tempted to move to New York. I might go to the US or Europe for a short period, but I would always want to come back to Argentina."

  Ellen Popper, retired
"People can't afford anything that is not absolutely necessary, one spends one's earnings on food and on medicine"
  Carmen, interpreter
"There has been an extraordinary flourishing of all sorts of associations... there has been a rebirth of a positive spirit"

World perspective

UK in focus
See also:

03 Oct 02 | Business
06 Feb 02 | Business
05 Feb 02 | Business
15 Jan 02 | Business
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