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Friederike Habermann © 2002


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How much will the dollar cost?

These were the headlines of the newspapers in Buenos Aires this morning. Today, Monday 11 February, the exchange rate of the Argentine Peso will be floated.

Two hundred and forty nine people wait in line on Avenida Florida in front of BankBoston shortly before it opens. Across the road, an equally long line gathers in front of Banco Galicia. Here in downtown Buenos Aires, the so-called micro-centro, banks sit next to each other as lines of customers coil side by side. Some of those waiting read, others take along their children or stand around in groups laughing. The majority, however, seems to be rather depressed. At ten o’clock, the richly-decorated main entrance of BankBoston, instead of opening, seems to be consumed by the mostly well-dressed and even expensively-clad people who slowly push forward. Two old ladies lean on each other. Some people are even allowed to cut the line from the side without further protest. After the last of the two hundred and forty nine waiting have disappeared through the revolving doors, the bank leaves the impression that it just has swallowed and digested a long human chain.

While the exchange rate had been fixed at 1:1, the sale of the dollar today started at 2.30 centavos. But the people who want to exchange money are turned away from the banks. The line in front of the banks consist of people who want take out their weekly limit of two hundred and fifty pesos. Afterwards, they have to line up another time in front of the currency exchange houses. There, new digital screens have been put up to show the changing rates of the dollar. Those who stay on the Avenida Reconquista quickly but involuntarily form the end of another of the many lines.

Around midday, the scene changes. On the side of Plaza de Mayo, a few hundred "savers" have gathered. "We paid in dollars and we want dollars back" is the main message of this small "Caceralazo", a demo with cooking pots, metal plates, water kettles and anything else that makes noise. While the demonstration walks through the banking district, it goes past these formal exclamations: "Ladrones - Thieves", well-dressed women write calmly on the numerous armored cars, while the drivers inside have to wait. "Chorres - robber", write retirees on the banks. The impromptu percussionists scratch and bang on the metal walls of the banks, denting them and making a raucous noise. Somewhere else, windowpanes are broken. Nobody minds being seen or filmed because everybody in Argentina today is angry, fearful and outraged.

They distribute leaflets with the slogans for the demo and the twelve demands for President Duhalde."Before everything else," one reads, "do not arm your death squads!" In this country, where the memory of a military dictatorship is still fresh, all are conscious of the possibility -- and some even long for it.

But this time it is not just those on the periphery of society who take to the streets and take direct action. "It has never happened before that the middle class has organized itself and decisively shaped the protest," judges the 67 year-old leftist Guillermo. And for the young leftists Marta and José this meant a big relief on 19 December. They were lying in their bed that day, deeply afraid of being abducted, when the cacerolazos of the middle class began leading many to think a military coup unlikely. Until then, street blockades of the destitute and unemployed, called piqueteros for their way of blockading, had formed the popular protest. These two ongoing forms of protest have so far remained separate, but that could change soon. This Saturday will see the first mass meeting of piqueteros and cacerolazos.




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