Cash-strapped Argentines return to bartering system ...
Published Monday, January 21, 2002
return to bartering system
BY FRANCES ROBLES
QUILMES, Argentina -- Fabio Rodriguez makes inexpensive
sandals, cheap slip-ons that he exchanges for tomatoes,
clothes or gasoline.
Ana Gerieri swaps snow cones for rice.
To feed her family, Haydee Paz offers crew cuts and
hairstyles. And so it goes for these Argentines, who include
a plumber, dentist, masseuse and yoga instructor. They
have returned to a centuries-old economic system to endure
a modern-day economic collapse: the ancient act of
``This started as a hobby. Now the truth is I don't have a
job,'' Rodriguez said. ``In today's market, you can't work.
Sales with money no longer exist.''
More than one million Argentines are finding a way around
their nation's crippling economic downfall by joining barter
clubs. What started six years ago in an ecologist's garage is
now a means of survival for millions of people suffering the
consequences of a financial breakdown that left people
without jobs and cash.
The founders of a barter fair say they believe Argentina's
financial crisis will force bartering to become the paradigm
for a new economy. In an country where people with cash in
the bank were told they can't spend it all until 2005, there is
only one kind of money people really trust: their own hard
Rodriguez owned a shoe factory until five years ago, when
the recession began in full force. He got by with a repair
shop, but customers quit coming. But they still needed
``I come here to calm my nerves,'' said Rodriguez, who
takes bartering a step further by driving out to the
countryside to trade shoes for good cuts of beef. ``It's better
than sitting home watching TV, dying of bad news.''
The shoemaker joined the barter fair, where members offer
services and goods in exchange for printed tickets called
credits. The credits can only be spent at one of Argentina's
4,300 barter clubs. A whopping 40 million are now in
circulation. Everybody from the travel agents, taxi drivers and
butchers outside the closed out factory where the Quilmes
fair takes place accepts them.
``This is money that offers no interest, no bank freeze and is
worthless to accumulate,'' said Horacio Covas, president of
the Argentine Cooperative Commerce Network. ``It's a way
to survive, live and dream. We're giving people a way to eat,
finding the answers the government wasn't coming up with.''
Covas and a group of ecologists began the barter fair in 1995
with only a few dozen members. The idea caught on and
spread throughout the country, even to municipalities and
small companies that ran out of currency to purchase goods
and pay staff. Last year, Covas said he formed 10 new clubs
a week. Now it's 40.
Virtually all the participants are out of work.
``I used to be a cook,'' said Maria del Carmen Valdez, who
hawks empanadas. ``Now I sell my food here.''
Twenty-five percent of the residents are out of work in
Quilmes, where the largest fair is held on Saturdays and
Sundays. The self-employed have no customers. And
outside Buenos Aires, hundreds of thousands have gone
without pay for months because the government ran out of
cash for salaries. The economic collapse here that reached
a low point with the government's default on Argentina's $141
billion in foreign debt and a succession of presidents made
the barter trend into one of few viable alternatives for making
In December, people took to the streets in protests that
ended in deaths and the resignation of President Fernando
de la Rua. Demonstrations have continued throughout the
country, where banks are frequently burned down by
mask-bearing protesters. Even the current president,
Eduardo Duhalde, says Argentina is on the brink of anarchy.
Covas says he is convinced that lack of work is the greatest
fomenter of violence.
``Instead of using energy of anger, this is energy of work,'' he
said. ``People here aren't worrying -- they are working. This
crisis has been a catalyst for growth. We calculate that by
2003, Argentina will be turned into a giant barter fair.''
He instituted rules, such as prohibiting the services like
prostitution or products such as drugs. Used clothes must
be clean and electronics must not be stolen or broken. Food
has to be fresh.
``I was a merchant,'' said Orlando Alvarez, who sells bags of
eight tomatoes for two credits each. ``Now thanks to [former
president Carlos Saul] Menem and his friends, here I am,
every day a little worse off.''
He admits that it's a little humbling to trade for food.
``This is the way I look at it: When you work, you work to
buy food. This is the same thing,'' he said. ``You have to
have that mentality. So you bring what you have and find
what you need. This is our life now.''
Virtually anything is available at the fair, from Alvarez's
tomatoes, to lettuce, cooked food, toilet paper and
refrigerator repair. Most shoppers said they use it to buy
basic necessities like eggs. Merchants peddling luxuries
like home improvement services saw few buyers. There's
even a beauty salon featuring 10 stylists who do dye jobs
but no perms. (There's no running water.)
Gerieri's one-credit snow cone business has come to a halt
because of too many competitors. ``You don't feel great
doing this, but there's no other alternative,'' she said. ``I
spent 20 years working hard, and it comes to this: burned