poetryrepairs #241 v17.10:109

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The Beggars of Buenos Aires :Introduction

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Sue Littleton

The poem, “The Beggars of Buenos Aires,” describes the results of a devastating economic decision that sent Argentina into an incredible recession and nearly destroyed the middle class. The political aftershock permitted the Kircherners, Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, his wife, to come to power – originally with the idea of remaining the presidents of Argentina forever (or as long as they would live). First Nestor would be president for four years, then his wife Christina for four years, eliminating the limits of an eight-year term, since it would be an endless series of four and four and four year terms, ad infinitum. After serving one four-year term and passing the presidential sash to his wife for the next four years, Nestor died of a heart attack. His death threw Cristina into an eight year double term and in 2015, after twelve years of power, her populist government was overthrown by the election of Mauricio Macri. The Argentines were fed up and refused to vote for the candidate offered by Cristina’s group. Even so, it was a very close election. The populist regime of the “K” lasted twelve years (election year November 2015 was the final year of Cristina’s presidency). Only now is the nation becoming aware of a government so corrupt people loyal to the Kircherners cannot believe proof after proof of government theft and dishonesty. Hospitals, schools, roads, and other public services were never provided: the tax money went directly into the pockets of “the richest widow in Latin America” and high officials of Cristina’s and Nestor’s political party. Today Cristina is being pursued in the courts for many money-related crimes and she may well end up in prison. Several of her most important government officials are already incarcerated. And yet, so luring is populism, she still has a large number of supporters who believe in her innocence and want her to return in some official capacity. None of this is mentioned in the poem, since most of it would occur in the future. At the time I experienced the pre-crisis situation without understanding the economic whys and wherefores. Carlos Menem had been president for a total of ten years, from 1989 to 1999. De la Rúa was the duly elected president from December 1999 to December 2001, when the economic situation, corruption and plain incompetence forced him to board a helicopter and leave the presidential office posthaste. In the streets angry crowds were shouting that every politician in Congress should leave. I was anticipating moving to Buenos Aires, completely unaware of the economic drama that was being played out. When I returned for three months in 2000, Menem had already established that the exchange rate would be one peso to one dollar – economically a disaster. This was done by Domingo Cavallo, Menem´s newly-appointed Minister of Economy, in 1991, and enforced as from January 1, 1992, when the “Austral” was replaced by the “New Peso,” worth One U.S. Dollar. President De la Rúa continued this evaluation of the peso. However, factories began closing, businesses went bankrupt, people lost their jobs. When De la Rúa was ousted, and after Argentina had gone through the ridiculous pantomime of having four acting presidents in one week, Congress named the well-known politician Eduardo Duhalde as President. Duhalde took office on January 2, 2002. On January 7, Duhalde declared that all dollars in the national banks and the financial markets would be changed to pesos at the established rate of one dollar – one pesos. Stunned, people saw their hard-earned dollar savings evaporate into nearly worthless pesos. Duhalde was supposed to complete de la Rúa´s four-year term, to December 2003, but for obvious reasons –one of them fear of a civil war-- he called general elections and in April 2003 Néstor Kirchner was elected president, with Duhalde’s open support. I arrived in Buenos Aires in April of 2000 to remodel my two room apartment, bringing with me all my dollar savings. Had I waited a year, those savings would have purchased about ten times more than what I was able to buy during those three months I was here. I well remember the shock of finding in a forgotten purse a lovely pink ten thousand peso note that would have been worth one hundred dollars the preceding year and now was worth ten dollars. THAT was a real lesson in economic disaster, up close and personal! Romania was going through its own economic crisis, and it seems it is very easy for Romanian citizens to learn to speak Spanish. Many Romanians chose to come to Argentina at that moment in time, which is why I mention their presence in the poem. Of course there were no jobs for them either and I am sure they sincerely wished they had chosen any Latin American country but Argentina! The poem is a sad and painful reflection of an Argentina I had never imagined could exist. In 2002, because of the crisis, my younger daughter, Julia, came with her little family to live with me in Austin, Texas, when her two sons were ten years old and ten months old. She was forced to completely remake her life, which she did with energy and success as a singer of tangos, luckily super popular in Austin at that time. Five years later Julia realized her dream of living on a modest farm in neighboring Uruguay, where she continues to make the most of her musical talents as a classical flutist and flute teacher.

poetryrepairs #241 v17.10:109

The Dilemma 

I find myself torn between ignoring half of the beggars and pressing too many peso coins into the hands of the other half. On my way to the market a sweet-face elderly man, neatly dressed, approaches me hesitantly and asks if I can “spare him a few pesos.” “No,” I answer brusquely, smiling to temper my refusal; Later, I look for him, wanting to give him something, ashamed of my reaction. Social security here is scant and difficult to collect; older people are denied insurance, bank credit. Later, when an adolescent boy asks if I will help him with train fare, I blindly thrust two pesos into his hand and he slouches away. Two pesos is two dollars and I also have a tight budget. I sigh and regret my generosity, aware that it was inspired by my earlier denial of the old man. This is the country I love, where I came as a young bride; this is the city I love, birthplace of my children and my grandchildren. No, I cannot reject the demands of the beggars. Their faces remind me of the country where I was born at the height of the Great Depression, protected by family values. As a young woman I had a job and an income. I know how adverse circumstances, lack of interest, privation, indifference to the plight of age and youth, even just plain bad luck, can drag anyone down. So I allot my small contributions here and there, ignoring the negative comments, the criticism implied and spoken by my more blasé Argentine friends, wondering just how to translate clearly for them, “There, but for the grace of God, go we all.”

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The Dilemma