Don's diary: Cry for Argentina

June 14, 2002

Monday
My birthday. One short of the big 50. Don't feel as old as that, except when I look in the mirror. Leave for Buenos Aires, where I am contributing to a masters course in small business economics at Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento. This will be my seventh visit.

Tuesday
Met at the airport by a driver who takes me to my hotel. Not for the first time I regret my inability to speak Spanish.

Argentina is in an economic and political crisis. The federal government is seeking assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Half the population is reported to be below the poverty line, unemployment is high and rising, inflation is increasing, as is crime. The peso has been devalued. It used to have parity with the US dollar; now there are more than 3 pesos to the dollar. People's access to their savings has been restricted to prevent the banking system from collapsing.

I sense that downtown Buenos Aires is less vibrant. However, the only clear signs of crisis are the shutters covering the windows of the banks and the long queues that extend outside. Apparently some enterprising individuals join these queues, then sell their places.

Invited to the home of Hugo, Estella and their six-year-old daughter who sings "Happy Birthday" to me in English. Conversation soon turns to football. Hugo notes the psychological significance of the World Cup for Argentina. He fears that defeat will push the country into even greater despair.

Wednesday
An informal meeting with Hugo and his junior colleague Juan, who visited Strathclyde earlier in the year, to discuss their new research report. Joined for lunch by a colleague who teaches entrepreneurship. We compare notes.

Teach the first of my three sessions. The class is a mix of full and part-time students; most of the part-timers either work with small businesses or in economic development. There is a translator, although most of the students understand English.

Thursday
Another informal discussion with Hugo about research. Lunch at a restaurant in the business district. The restaurant is fairly full. Enjoy an exquisite bife de lomo . Teaching goes well. I am developing a good rapport with the students. Juan takes me for dinner in a lively new gastronomic district.

Friday
Meet with Hugo, Juan and Sergio, a professor of entrepreneurship at another university, to discuss their paper on the role of universities in developing entrepreneurial individuals. Lunch at Puerto Maderes, a revitalised waterfront area in Buenos Aires, comprising mostly upmarket restaurants and offices. I note the new office, hotel and housing developments that are under construction.

Final teaching session. Outside the building (a government office) there is debris left by a protest march earlier in the day. Various students tell me they have enjoyed the sessions.

Saturday
Go shopping. As a result of devaluation, Argentina is a shoppers paradise for foreign visitors. Beggars are more numerous and my shopping bags attract them. There are various people on the streets offering unofficial foreign exchange.

Invited to Hugo and Estella's for an asado (barbecue). In the evening they take me to a performance of traditional Argentine music. On the way I notice that the hawkers who try to sell various items to drivers at traffic lights are more numerous. Impressed by a girl who stands in front of them, juggling with lighted sticks, while her colleague seeks money from the drivers.

Sunday
Head for home. Reflect on the limited visible signs of the crisis. But downtown Buenos Aires is not the most appropriate geographical location to observe the human costs. Although normality seems to prevail, it is obvious from conversations that most people are desperately worried about the future. I am sad for a people who, not for the first time, have been let down by their irresponsible politicians and face an uncertain future.

Colin Mason is professor of entrepreneurship in the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

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