Buenos Aires: Spelunking

In 2013, the microcentro porteño of Buenos Aires had all the predictable airs of an important financial district, but with its own game. Over the years, the rules had been explained to me on many different occasions, but I never took notes. Everyone had their own version of the way things had been, the way things were now, and the way things were going to go – so much that – I often felt like I was being led down a black hole.

So when Damián told me that we were looking for una cueva (a cave) in the middle of the BA financial district, I could only marvel at this perfect metaphor for the Argentinean economy. Say what you will about their solvency, but these people have a way with words.

We pushed our way through the melee of business executives and self-important fashionistas along Calle Florida when Damián suddenly got low on sugar and had to stop for a Coca-Cola. While I waited for him outside of the store – the epitome of “playing it cool” – the wad of euros stuffed down the front of my bra began to burn against my skin, demanding to know what the hell I was doing. “You’re supposed to find treasure in caves, not bring it in”, it hissed at me, but this one was different.

Una cueva was an illegal currency exchange point that had sprouted up as a response to the monetary restrictions known as el cepo cambiario put into place by Christina Kirchner´s government in 2011. Among these limitations, citizens were banned from keeping savings accounts in U.S. dollars and were required to present sworn affidavits in order to buy the foreign currency needed to travel abroad. While they could still buy limited amounts of U.S. dollars at the official government rate, it was never enough for international travel. And just to make sure nobody tried – because even Christina knows that Argentineans are some of best-known global trotters on a budget – the government leveraged a 35% charge on any credit card purchase made outside of the country. O sea, they made traveling abroad financially impossible for the vast majority of its citizens. WTF.

And for those of you who don’t live and die by travel, the rest of Argentineans weren’t too keen on leaving their life savings in pesos either. Most of those who were old enough to have accumulated some wealth to their name still vividly remembered the financial collapse of 2002.

Yet this time, when el cepo cambiario restrictions came into force, nobody ran out to bang pots and pans and raid grocery stores. Perhaps they’d learned a thing or two since then or they were just tired. This time, the black market simply responded with a workaround: the dollar blue. Blue dollars were more expensive than the official ones, but nobody told you how many you could have. And that sort of financial freedom was worth a steep price.

Our “cave” was located in a non-descript office building a few blocks off Calle Florida. There was no indication that a shady business occupied the space in question, but it didn’t go out of its way to suppress its artificiality either. There were no paintings on the walls, no plants to be watered, and no comfortable waiting area for clients. There were just a few tall cubicles organized to create privacy and one very bored, but easy-on-the-eyes secretary. If the place had needed to disappear in thirty minutes, it could have been dismantled in fifteen. Even the people that worked there walked around in a kind of frenzy that made you feel like they were going to tear it down tomorrow.

“Here we are, la cueva,” I narrated excitedly as we took the elevator upstairs. “Does this mean we’re spelunking? Who ever thought we’d be going up?”

Damián gave me one of his not-funny looks followed by his just-shut-the-hell-up-and-let-me-do-the-talking. I licked my lips and smiled at him one last time before the door opened. Call me a ditz, but he is so attractive when he’s serious.

A man dressed in a crisp gray suit  ushered us into a cubicle and sat down across the table from us. He pressed his palms together in what appeared to be a kind of prayer and asked, “How much do you have?”

I picked the money out of my bra and set it on the table. We weren´t their usual customers. We wanted to buy pesos instead of dollars in order to spend it inside Argentina, not the other way around. But as an illegal currency exchange house, the cash flow served them all the same. At that time, we could receive 5.2 pesos for 1 euro on the official market, but on the blue market our euro was worth 8.4 pesos, a notable difference.

The man nodded in acceptance to our silent proposal and he left the room with our money. Damián and I were left waiting there for awhile and I started to think about the gray area that we were operating in. Can we break the law if the law is unjust? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Am I winning or losing the game today?

Then, the man came back with a stack of pesos and he let us count it while he leaned back in his chair. I had decided that I was winning, but then he said something that made me feel sick.

“How about La Infanta?” he asked. “Isn’t she something?”

He was referring to the latest indictment in the Spanish Royal Family embezzlement case. La Infanta, the sister to the King of Spain, was facing charges ranging from fraud to money laundering and trafficking of influences. Yet he had said her name in a way that reeked of approval.

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. I didn´t want anything to do with this man and his shitty small talk, but I recognized that I wanted his money. This felt like the first step down an even darker tunnel. The whole cave situation was just too easy. Both systems were broken, but I wasn’t doing anything to fix it. I might have won that day, but everybody was losing in the long run.

– Ashley


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