Soaring Prices Fuel Frustrations for Weary Argentines
【By JONATHAN GILBERT／聯合報／陳世欽譯】
BUENOS AIRES — Diego Gómez scurried around the food market in a gritty neighborhood far from the elegant avenues of central Buenos Aires. He did not stay long.
“My salary isn’t enough for anything,” said Mr. Gómez, 58, a blacksmith and father of four who earns less than $800 a month. After a few modest purchases, he left . “It’s unfair that we suffer,” he said about the rise in prices that followed a 19 percent devaluation in January of Argentina’s peso, which sent shock waves through emerging markets.
Mr. Gómez’s situation is common in Argentina as residents grapple with one of the world’s highest inflation rates, leading to social unrest, including a strike by schoolteachers and police sitins that led to widespread looting.
Argentines endured price rises of nearly 30 percent last year, according to an unofficial index published by opposition politicians; the government, which has been accused of manipulating economic data in the past, claims inflation reached only 10.9 percent in 2013. In 2014, inflation could accelerate to 45 percent, according to a recent report by J. P. Morgan in New York.
The price increases are a feature of daily life. One butcher’s store abandoned its price boards last month; cashiers now update a scrap of paper daily. Women seek increases in alimony payments from former spouses. Businesses wrestle with salary demands. News channels send out reporters with 100 pesos, about $12.70, to gauge the weakening buying power of the highest-denomination bill. People fume in the streets about the price of everything from cakes to refrigerators. Cafe owners complain that customers order less food. Wholesalers and store owners struggle to price imported goods.
Salary increases have blunted inflation and fueled domestic consumption, including record sales of new cars last year. But real wages are now expected to drop, leading one prominent opposition figure to compare them to “water running through your fingers.”
The government has pressed ahead with a round of price freezes on items like vegetables, meat, canned food and even some school materials. Billboards encourage Argentines to call a hotline to denounce stores that do not respect the freezes.
“We have to monitor prices,” President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner told thousands of supporters outside Congress this month. “Don’t let them rob you,” she said, referring to what she and her ministers view as a coterie of rapacious businessmen.
In the crowd, Lucía Martínez, 60, a nephrologist, said the price increases were disproportionate and equated them to an “undercover coup.” Posters from a pro-government organization singled out business executives , accusing them of theft.
“They’re toasting with Champagne while the people become divided,” said Sandra Bustos, 50, who runs a market stall.
Argentines disillusioned with the government believe the controls are a symptom of haphazard policy making . “The campaign is useless,” said a retired accountant who gave his name only as José . “It’s a rule that’s older than the world. If you print money, there’s inflation.”
Monetary supply increased by 25 percent in 2013, according to the president of the central bank.
Mrs. Kirchner’s economy minister, Axel Kicillof, subscribed to Marxist theory as a university professor and has downplayed the link between monetary expansion and inflation. He has criticized the idea that Latin American governments should use inflation rates to gauge economic success.
Argentina has long been plagued by cycles of inflation, starting with price increases provoked by influential British merchants soon after Spanish colonialists were ousted in 1810. More recently, the financial crisis of 2001-2 set off political upheaval, devaluation and inflation. A decade earlier, hyperinflation set off looting and forced President Raúl Alfonsín to hand over the presidency . “People have lived through so many inflationary processes that an escalation in prices is not just economic, but sociological,” said Carlos Germano, a political analyst.
“Crises are routine,” said Hugo Fahler, 57, who installs air-conditioning units . He says he now charges nearly twice as much as before the devaluation because the cost of some materials has jumped by 160 percent.
“This reminds me of Alfonsín,” Mr. Fahler said. “The next government is going to have a real mess on its hands.”