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Cambalache

By Sara Ardila-Gómez
on March 17, 2015

Cambalache is the name of one of the most famous tango songs ever, composed during the world economic crisis in the 30s. A cambalache is a shop in which it is possible to buy almost anything and products are exposed in a rather chaotic way. The term is often used as a metaphor for the mess and loss of clear references in society in times of crisis. In a cambalache, says the song, “everything is the same”: values and references seem to be lost, or at the very least, ambiguous and fading.

In the current times of crisis for Greece and the Eurozone (even if ministers and leaders in many Eurozone countries tend to emphasize every six months or so that the crisis is over), many eyes in the world are looking towards the south for some possible answers and solutions. Observers try to learn and understand how some countries here managed to survive in times of recent deep economic crisis, and in some cases, have even seen their economic situation substantially improve after these turbulent times. (The same goes for some of the new political movements in Europe, by the way: Podemos (in Spain) was at least partly inspired by trends, movements and progressive governments in Latin America.)

My country Argentina seems to be one of the preferred examples (I hesitate to call us a “role model”, though) when people are discussing the dire situation in Greece nowadays. In many ways, the situation of the Greeks now looks similar to the mess in Argentina at the turn of the millennium. One can perhaps debate Argentina’s rate of success or failure after the 2001 economic crash, but cannot deny that the 2001 crisis deeply challenged many of the certainties of the Argentinian society and people. Without wanting to sound pretentious, even some convictions in the rest of the world were shattered. When the crisis reached its climax, Argentina had five presidents in one week (guess that’s a world record), a 300% currency devaluation took place in one single day, banks retained people’s savings (some of them were lost forever), and for a country that sees itself as the “breadbasket” of the world, at the time part of the population was actually starving. Even the national football team was rubbish at the time. Until then (this is perhaps not the case anymore today) it had been unthinkable for a developing country to survive outside the rules and frameworks of international financial institutions (IMF etc), or continue without their so called “help”. Argentina showed that although it was extremely painful, the default turned out not to be the end of the world. Life goes on, the Argentinians showed the rest of the world. (And then the world still had to discover Leo Messi! After the mess came Mess(i) 🙂 )

Things, of course, always seem clearer with hindsight. Almost 15 years later, it is possible to discern a kind of path or a recovery project, of what really was, at that moment, just a huge gamble. Nevertheless, my Greek friends might want to consider some elements from the Argentinian experience, given their current predicament:

* It is impossible to assess and understand Argentina’s recovery without taking into account the international context after the crisis. The rise in international prices of raw materials, a true commodity price boom –soy beans, notably-, for example, with China as the main buyer, was a gift from God. Also, the rebirth of the idea (or the dream) of the “Great Nation” referring to South America, and more broadly to Latin America, inspired the recovery of countries like Argentina and other countries in the region (such as Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela (till recently)…) but was also a consequence of it. In spite of all the differences in the region, there seems to be increasingly a common understanding that together (rather than divided) it will be easier to play a role in the globalizing world. A recent example of this was the support of the OAS (Organization of American States) to Argentina in its nasty dispute with the vulture funds. Similarly, it seems impossible to think of a possible Greece recovery without taking into account its European neighbors but also the possible role of other world and regional players (be it the US, Russia, Turkey or even China). A key difference between Greece and Argentina, perhaps, is that the (Latin American) “union” became part of the solution to the crisis for Argentina, while Greece, of course, is already part of the Eurozone now (and many observers think that it’s exactly this what has strangled the Greek economy, after years of harsh “TINA” troika policies). So the similarity only goes this far. Nevertheless, in a globalist era, nationalist left-wing populism can is not the only political (and economic) game in town. The broader (than just national) picture will always have to be considered as well, even if part of the answer to the crisis for Greece might perhaps lay, eventually, in a Grexit. Syriza leaders seem to understand that.

 

As far as my own country is concerned, a good way to understand the transition that has taken place in Latin America since 2000 is with a couple of songs: the first one, from 1985 is a song from a Chilean band, “Los Prisioneros”. The name of the song I refer to, here, can be translated as “Latin America is a village to the south of the USA. The song dwells, among other things, about the utter nonsense of regional division. The second one is from “Calle 13”, a band from Puerto Rico, and is called “Latin America” (2012). The song talks about common pride, struggle, resistance and regional identity. It says: “Here, struggle is being breathed… we are standing here”. Nevertheless, in spite of these beautiful words (which no doubt will also resonate in contemporary Greece), things are not a fairytale yet in the “Great Nation”.

 

There are also big and small countries in Latin America, and common rules affect them in different ways (much like in the Eurozone not everybody can be Germany). An example in our region is Uruguay, a country that recently has been considering to leave Mercosur and look for other commercial partners, outside the region. Economic rules affect small countries like Uruguay in a very different way than big ones like Brazil or Argentina. Of course, the picture is more complex in the Eurozone, with all the interdependencies we’ve seen in recent years between countries, but it remains true that the rules are sometimes interpreted “differently” for small countries.

 

* It is also impossible to assess the Argentinian recovery without considering the country’s history and path dependency: the nostalgia for its great past (Argentina was less than a century ago one of the richest countries on earth), a history of achievement of social rights, relatively recent immigration, the power of trade unions, and many other local ingredients that help to understand both the crisis and its solutions. Similarly, for outsiders of Greece, whether they’re called Schäuble, Merkel or Dijsselbloem, it’s equally impossible to understand what Greek politicians and the people are doing when trying to cope with the crisis if they don’t try to understand the country’s history. Some European politicians and technocrats seem better at this than others, to put it mildly.

 

In my opinion, the world – and perhaps Greece- can learn at least one obvious lesson, when reflecting on the Argentinian experience: there is not one “good solution”, instead, there are solutions that will affect certain groups of the society more than others, and vice versa, and then the society will need to take some decisions about what and who to favor. It is not like in a cambalache, not everything is the same when a country faces a deep crisis. There are always options and alternatives, even if one is perhaps seen as “common sense” and “unavoidable” and another one as near utopia by the powers that be.

Despite all the current problems in Argentina –both new ones and old ones that have returned – such as inflation, social polarization, concentration of power, environmental problems, corruption, the Argentinian people opted for including the excluded in the so called ‘earned decade’ (La Decada Ganada), and for being a country that at least tries to choose its own destiny (with all the caveats one can imagine in a globalizing world). Argentina is not the paradise, but it is a country that is very much alive.

From what I hear about the Greeks, they’re a proud people as well. It’s time for them to win that pride back.

Time to end the Cambalache (mess), my Greek friends!

 

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