On December 1, 2001, President Fernando de la Rúa froze most deposit accounts to prevent a run on the banks. Five weeks and four presidents later, the government severed the link holding the peso at parity with the dollar and converted most dollar deposits into pesos. Businesses went bust in droves, throwing countless workers onto the street. Unlike the wealthy, who had the means and the experience to park their dollars overseas, much of the middle class was pauperized instantly, its money trapped in the bank and devalued as the peso floated free.
Today, former bank clerks and office workers trade their refrigerators and TV's for food in the barter clubs that have sprung up all over the city, and once-"respectable" families swarm the streets after dark to dig through garbage for any recyclables they can sell. Outside Buenos Aires, some have died of starvation, a fate almost unimaginable in a country this fertile.
On my first visit to Buenos Aires since the seemingly halcyon days of the mid-1990's, the city center still feels enlivened by that mixture of melancholy and hope, romance and cynicism that is the essence of the tango. Elegant women and besuited young men pour out of offices into the damp sheen of evening. In old cafés like the Tortoni or the Richmond, white-jacketed waiters dance meticulous attendance on porteña matrons and elderly gentlemen in three-piece suits and silk foulards. Throughout this most carnivorous of cities, tables are being laid for dinner, steaks readied for a thousand grills.
But if the many bookstores may be full of browsers sizing up Gabriel García Márquez's autobiography or the latest from Isabel Allende, the designer stores and fur emporia draw only window-shoppers, and the entire city seems to be on sale. Pesos are tight and the price of anything imported has quadrupled in the past year. Those carrying dollars come armed like conquistadores, able to commandeer a room at the Claridge Hotel for $100, dine out gloriously for $5, and cart home their weight in leather for a few greenbacks. And crime has become a problem: the farther and the later one ventures from the center, the more wary one must be.
The overall mood has also changed utterly. Politicians are pilloried as corrupt betrayers. Foreign banks, despite their denials, are accused of having spirited away all those Argentine dollars before the boom fell. "Everyone knows now that it was a setup," says one lawyer turned actor. I hear this refrain constantly, and it has a certain justice: the International Monetary Fund continued to urge austerity as the economy plunged into recession.
The gloom on the streets does not necessarily translate into defeatism. As of November, the economic situation had stabilized and there were signs of progress in restructuring Argentina's debt. Where previous crises might have elicited a shrug of the shoulders and a lament for better days, the shocks of the past year appear to have inspired a new sense of solidarity in this city traditionally polarized along class lines.
"There is a realization now that people are lucky or unlucky, not bad or good," Pablo Trapero tells me when we meet in his tiny, cluttered studio in the leafy suburb of Palermo. "Everyone is just trying to survive." He believes this sudden awareness of a common fate has evolved into a determination to confront reality head-on, in film as much as anywhere else. "El Bonaerense"—the name means someone from the province of Buenos Aires, as opposed to a porteño—"is not a movie about dreams, and it is not a commercial movie," he says. "It is about a policeman and police corruption. And yet people are responding in different ways." While some see the film as comedy, Trapero recalls that after one showing, a woman "came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, 'We have to change all this.'"