|Surprises and Chaos in Argentina||1 | 2 | 3|
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — This is one mighty interesting time to be in Argentina.
You've probably heard a few things about it in the news. Downtown Buenos Aires is looking like a WTO homecoming, as people take to the streets after finding out that the government has managed to run the country's Visa bill up to something around $140 billion, and it turns out they don't have the money saved up under their mattress after all. So every couple of days, people go out and break the windows of some banks, the national police subdue the panic with tear gas, and Congress elects a new president. Either that, or someone from Congress resigns, so they don't get stuck with the job.
The latest president, the fifth in the last month, believes this is because for ten years, Argentina's local currency, the peso, has been "locked" to the US dollar, thus preventing it from going out and possibly getting some action with other currencies. His idea, chosen by randomly opening to a page in the book "101 Ways to Save a Dying Economy", was to remove that lock, in the hopes that people would realize everything was now cheaper, but hoping they would not realize they now make a whole lot less money than they used to. Unfortunately, the President and Congress are not very good at basic math, so during the several days that they sat around trying to figure out what a peso was really worth, the international exchange market saw the peso free-fall in value like that of a dot-com company.
We tried to alter the timing of our arrival into Argentina so as to miss the looting and rioting, but get the benefit of a beleagered economy by paying about 30-40% less for everything. Unfortunately, we missed that window by a hair, showing up right in the middle of the chaos, during which time nobody had the faintest idea what a dollar was really worth.
The surprises started on the morning of the 9th, when we ended our brief one-day relapse into Western civilization by checking out of the Hilton hotel in Buenos Aires. We secured our rate on the Internet the week before, at a respectable $90 (US) a night. However, when I looked at my bill, it read $152. The 21% tax I could understand, but where did the other 44 dollars come from? I went to the front desk to point out the discrepancy, and that's when they explained that the price was actually in pesos. As of THIS very day, the 1-to-1 ratio of dollars-to-pesos was no longer valid, and now it was 1 dollar to 1.4 pesos. But don't worry, they said, it's still a rate of 90 dollars US.
I should point out, before going any further, that the Argentinians use the dollar sign ($) to represent pesos — not US dollars. For that, they straddle their own symbol with the initials "U$S". Needless to say, this yields the question "pesos or dollars?" about five million times a day, by foreigners and locals alike.
On the bright side, they said at the hotel, it just got cheaper to be here in Argentina. That may be fine and all in theory, but I didn't see their price going down.