Prices were spiraling upward and the exchange rate against the dollar was in free fall. Two years ago the austral was at about three to the dollar. By last February it had fallen to 17; on May 17 it was just over 100 to the dollar. Outside the exchange houses on Corrientes and San Martin, crowds of people hypnotically watched the blackboards quoting the constantly changing rate. Each time it went up or down, dozens of people rushed into each exchange house to turn bags and even briefcases full of australes into dollars, dollars into australes.
On Friday, May 19, the dollar opened at 140, climbed as high as 210 in some exchange houses, and finally closed at 170. The instability that other countries have suffered in decades was compressed into hours, even minutes. The government announced that the following Monday and Tuesday were bank and exchange holidays. Congress and both outgoing and incoming executive authorities spent the weekend trying to work out new austerity measures with which to retrench. As the government extended the bank and exchange holiday day by day over the next eight days, the economy ground to a halt.
We could no longer obtain \o7 australes, \f7 but the dollar was accepted virtually everywhere for significant purchases. One could buy shoes and books and expensive meals for dollars but had to scrape to find \o7 australes \f7 for taxis, groceries, newspapers, etc. We could have bought a car with dollars, but we had to walk most places for fear of running out of our few \o7 australes.\f7
With the banks closed, it was difficult for anyone to find enough money to function. Half the businesses we walked past were closed. For months, as interest rates fluctuated in the range of 50% to 200%, it has been impossible to make any rational financial plans.
In supermarkets, hoarders were buying as much as they could afford. Once, we waited in a checkout line for 40 minutes; the delay came both from the number of people in line and the store's trouble in keeping up with minute-by-minute price hikes and the shortage of bills with which to make change.
One Sunday, a cousin drove us out of the city in his car to meet his brother, who is second in command of a tank regiment. We spent most of the day enjoying a bountiful barbecue, and toward sunset we went to see the tank base. Two of our cousin's subordinate officers proudly showed off their armor and told us that a contingent was always on full alert and could roll in four minutes. Nobody said so, but it was clear that there was no external enemy for whom they were in such a state of readiness.
The day before we left, a state of siege was imposed on the country, giving the police wide authority to make arrests and suspending guarantees of personal rights. Four bombs either went off or were disarmed in Buenos Aires, and in Rosario and elsewhere there were repeated sackings of supermarkets by large and determined groups of people. Many saw in that episode the return of the subversive left, the same element whose appearance in the mid-1970s sparked the terrible decade of military repression now known as the Dirty War.
The day we left Argentina, a dozen relatives were swarming about as we loaded our luggage into a cousin's car. Someone lightly pointed out that we were violating the state of siege's ban against congregating in the street. The goodbys ended abruptly and the cousins walked away quickly.
At the airport we sat drinking coffee with the three who had come to see us off. They unapologetically pocketed the sugar from the table, explaining that sugar had gone up 300% in price in the last two weeks. They treated us to the coffee, though they were visibly short of money. It was a terrible wrench to leave them behind in the chaos.
We love these people and their country. We fear for the day when struggling for something to eat will overcome the struggle to preserve their fragile democracy. This is a disaster just as real and pressing as any from natural causes. It just isn't as dramatic to the outside world--yet.