Que se Vayan Todos

Popular Economics

16th Feb. 2002

It is in the barter markets where another extraordinary example of necessity breeding ingenuity is enabling Argentineans to survive the crisis. We visit the Trueque La Estación, or The Station Exchange, that takes place twice a week in a four story community centre on the outskirts of the city, where we are shown around by Ana, a shy engineer wearing thick glasses. "The politicians have stolen everything from the people, they want to control everybody," she explains. "People come here because they don't want to be in the system."

The place is bustling; we can hardly move through the jovial throngs of people perusing the rows of tables offering goods and services. You can buy anything here, or rather, you can exchange anything here, from eggs to bumper stickers, miniskirts to spices, cucumbers to crocheted toilet roll holders, as long as you use the barter's own currency - small brightly colored notes which look a bit like Monopoly money.

The system is simple: people take their products to the market and sell them for barter credit. The vendor is then able to use this to purchase products they need in return. If you have nothing to exchange and want to participate, you must buy credits from a bank with cash. But most people have something to trade, if they are imaginative enough, and though these people are deeply lacking in cash, they have a surplus of imagination.

Piles of bric-a-brac cover some tables, while others have neat and ordered displays. A young woman sits behind a pile of underwear reading Nietzsche while a mother carrying her child in a sling does a swift trade in home baked pies. On one table Frederick Forsyth novels jostle for space with the Argentinean equivalent of Hello magazine and books about the Spanish Civil War. Huddled beside the stairs, an indigenous Bolivian family chat over wooden boxes of fresh vegetables. On the top floor a doctor in a pristine white coat offers to take our blood pressure, while a dentist demonstrates some procedure using a lurid pair of false teeth. People are having their haircut in one room while manicures and tarot readings are offered in another. There are classes in technical drawing as well as immigration advisement. Occasionally the trueque radio station (which "broadcasts" through a crackly PA system) announces new services being offered.

These barter clubs began in 1995, when the recession began to be felt. Since then they developed into a whole network and are now known as nodos, meaning nodes, or points of concentration. Currently there are several thousand nodos in existence throughout the country, with well over two million people taking part. For many of them it has become the only way of surviving the economic crisis.

As we leave the building we pass a stall holder with whom we spoke during the afternoon, a strikingly tall, elegantly dressed woman in her mid-forties. She waves good-bye, her dark eyes filled with resigned sadness, in sharp contrast to the overall conviviality of the place, and her lips silently form the words, "We are hungry."

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