Nicolas, a 20-year-old political science student who lives in a low-income area of La Matanza, a locality in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, starts his day at six in the morning. He uses a variety of modes of transportation to go to and from his job at a call centre in the city centre. However, he often misses one of the buses intentionally and forces himself to walk the distance to save money. After his job, Mr. Nicolas attends four hours of classes and doesn’t leave home until 11 at night. Even if this schedule repeats from Monday to Saturday, Mr Nicolas and his family struggle to make ends meet in a country facing an economic crisis reflected in an annual inflation rate of 143% and an increase in the poverty rate.
“Inflation is affecting us horribly, and it’s infuriating. Even though I have a job, my family spends time searching for the best prices, cutting expenses, and strategising such as walking extra to get slightly cheaper fruit, saving ten pesos (USD 0.01 in the informal exchange rate) on bread… All this little engineering has become normalised in my family and this country,” the young man said.
Mr. Nicolás is a supporter of Javier Milei, an economist who identifies as an anarcho-capitalist and is a prominent figure in the Argentine electoral campaign. Mr. Milei advocates for massive tax cuts and the reduction of subsidies, which he sees as the root cause of Argentina’s economic problems, along with the issuance of pesos to pay off debt and fund the state.
The ongoing electoral campaign in Argentina is overshadowed by the economic crisis, leading to the devaluation of the national currency, the peso, by over 50% in just this year. In the official market, the Argentine peso exchanges at 353 per dollar, a rate set by the government. However, many turn to the informal market, where the peso trades at 1,000 per dollar, influencing the calculation of prices.
Mr. Milei’s flagship proposal is to dollarise the economy to eliminate this paradox, as some other Latin American countries like Ecuador or El Salvador have done before. However, implementing this in Argentina, the third-largest economy in Latin America with a population of 50 million, would be challenging.
The economist, who garnered 30% of the support in the first round of October, is now in the final runoff against the Minister of Economy, centre-left Sergio Massa, who secured 36% of the votes a few weeks ago. Mr. Massa supports the government’s social measures but is viewed sceptically by the more left-leaning factions within the ruling coalition, aligned with the current vice president and former president from 2009 to 2015, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—a figure strongly opposed by Milei’s supporters and a major source of polarisation in the country since the academic anarcho-capitalist entered politics three years ago.
“The way things are, we are depriving ourselves of everything. It’s very frustrating. It’s very infuriating. I still feel privileged, even though I’m sacrificing many things because many people are worse off than me,” said Mr. Nicolás.
Abelardo Medina is one of those people. He talks while scrutinising a table of second-hand clothes donated to a neighbourhood dining room, looking for garments for his family. He visits the place every day to collect the essentials: food for his nine children. Today is lucky because there’s been a donation of pastries, allowing him to bring something special to his family. Such places exist in Buenos Aires, partially funded by the municipality, and are essential for the survival of part of the population.
“I’m in a tough spot with this economic situation. I work from six in the morning, and I don’t have a set time to return. Sometimes I come back at one in the morning. I’m a mechanic. But the money doesn’t stretch. It has no value. I have to turn to this dining room to eat,” said Mr. Medina, dressed in his work attire, two motorcycle helmets in hand, ready to rush to the next job.
This is one of the greatest paradoxes of present-day Argentina. Poverty affects 40% of the population. Over 18 million people do not have enough to cover their personal needs. The 10% of the population lives in extreme poverty and cannot afford to eat. However, official figures show that unemployment barely affects 6.2% of the population. This means that people cannot meet their basic needs despite working due to inflation and the devaluation of the local currency.
“We are depriving ourselves of everything, even electricity and water. We cut off the gas. Of course, we don’t have a barbecue in the land of meat or go out for a drink. You go to the park for a while and drink just a mate (a popular beverage in South America). Money has no value. Before, with 100 pesos, I could buy something. Now you can buy two candies with that,” Mr. Medina said.
“Nowadays, you can’t eat meat. Sometimes, with my husband, during weekends, we buy chicken wings, freeze them, and then eat them in portions. That’s all the luxury we can afford,” said another neighbour, Sandra, a diner user. She has three children, but her salary, earned from cleaning houses, is not enough, nor is her husband’s income or the pensions of her retired parents, which don’t even cover their medication.
Situation of retirees
The situation of retirees in Argentina is a significant concern. Despite continuous increases in pensions, their purchasing power has fallen by 14% this year due to inflation and 34% since 2017, experts warn.
“In June of this year, I realised I had nothing to eat,” said Lilian Galván. “I endured it alone. I didn’t have to ask anyone for anything, but now I organise myself. What I do is buy non-perishable food when I have money and store it. That way, I don’t fall victim to inflation. You have to buy things when you receive the pension. I don’t eat meat anymore,” said Ms. Galván while arranging a vase of flowers in a senior centre in Balvanera, in the centre of Buenos Aires.
Like many Argentines now, she has to be resourceful to survive. She got her grandson’s permission to sell her old football jerseys online. Now she sells more old things she had at home and manages to earn extra money to make ends meet.
“People are depriving themselves of things like Yoghurt, fruits, vegetables, and food that grandparents and children need for their health. Social life no longer exists,” laments Laura, a worker at a social dining room in the Barrancas neighbourhood.
“I’m scared. Honestly, I’m scared and uncertain,” said Lionel Vargas, another dining room user, after collecting food for his family. He believes the atmosphere is one of deep anger and fears that the situation will explode. “This is a balloon that is inflating and will burst. There’s a moment when people won’t take it anymore, and when people say enough is enough, then that’s it. It has to happen because it’s a natural order,” he admits, worried about elections considered crucial in the recent history of his country.
(Hector Estepa is an independent journalist based in Ecuador)