A little bit more than a year ago I decided to pass my mandatory exchange semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s mandatory for my course of studies in international management to at least spend one semester abroad, in a foreign speaking country. The university where I enrolled myself is called UADE – Universidad Argentina de la Empresa.
The use of this semester abroad is to acquire a high level in a foreign language and to get experience living abroad. Although it’s called an exchange, there is actually pretty much no exchange going on, meaning that it does not mean that because I enrolled myself in Buenos Aires someone from here will go the my university at the same time.
The UADE campus is located on one of the main avenues of the city, the avenida 9. de Julio, which is close to the centre of the city. Entering the building you will be surprised about the amount of security to pass. Every student has to check-in with a type of credit card student credential. These precautions have to be taken because the UADE is located in a rather unsafe neighbourhood. Extra care and safety measures are essential, especially at night.
The UADE is a private-university. The tuition fees are affordable; therefore most of the enrolled students come from middle-class families. The general opinion in Argentina is that it is one of the best universities in Argentina to study business administration. I do not really have a comparison, but many of the enrolled students would not confirm that statement. It is definitely the biggest and best known one, after the state-owned university of Buenos Aires (UBA).
I signed up in for various business administration classes: Marketing, finance, administration, entrepreneurship and public relations. The way the lessons were taught was often disappointing. Almost never there was an official literature for a specific subject, which explains why a lot of time in the subjects time was spent on plain copy-paste from the blackboard.
The university is equipped with projectors, televisions, DVD-players and a decent online web-campus, webmail and wireless-internet. However, most lecturers regrettably made very little, or no use of technology. Honestly, I cannot blame them, because the salaries for teaching (and many other professions) in Argentina are very bad.
The cultural offerings of Buenos Aires
The cultural offerings of Buenos Aires are astonishing. Comparisons with Europeans cities are almost unavoidable. Often is it called the Paris of South America or compared to Madrid or Barcelona, which have a similar flair.
Since the middle of the 19. Century, vast amounts of immigrants came to Argentina from Spain and Italy, in search of a better life. According to the lonely-planet, 97% of the Argentine population claims to be of European heritage. This explains the European flair and all the Pizza-stores distributed throughout the city.
In opposition to the popular believe, not everyone in Buenos Aires dances or listens to tango. Many of the hip, cool and young in Buenos Aires prefer European and North American music-styles ranging from Rock, Pop, and Punk over Jazz to Electronic Dance Music.
The city offers concerts and gigs of most internationally important artists, bands and DJs. Alongside with Sao Paulo, the city has the biggest international names of visiting artists to offer in South America.
Each year the city is the host of an international dance music festival which hosts many international DJs and live acts. With up to 60’000 people dancing for 17 hours, it is the world’s biggest dance music festival: Creamfields Buenos Aires.
Big bands and artists like Madonna or The Police hold huge concerts each year. In December 2007, The Police held 2 concerts in Buenos Aires in the huge football stadium of River Plate.
The Argentine everyday struggle
I want to list up some of the major problems a regular person might encounter on a random workday in Buenos Aires. Without analyzing too much the root of the problems I want to give a little insight in some of the difficulties of everyday life in Buenos Aires which I personally experienced.
The change problem
The city has an impressive lack of coins and small bills. Change is exceptionally scarce. On pretty much every small purchase the customer is asked to pay more precise. More than once each week I ended up paying less, because the seller did not want to give me change with coins, which are very short in supply.
Public buses, the main form of public transportation used to travel in Buenos Aires can only be paid with coins. For people living outside the centre the required coins can be as high as 8 pesos per day. Even the banks lack the necessary amount of coins. They might change you a few 2-5 pesos but nothing more. Therefore people travelling daily with the bus are the unluckiest. Acquiring so-called ‘monedas’ or coins is tricky.
In the local newspaper ‘La Nacion’ I Isabel Duelo van Deusen, a reader, described the problem in a very real and somehow joking way:
“Fui a comprar pan y no pude. La empleada no tenía monedas para el cambio y, si las tenía, no quiso solterlas. Quise adquirir fruta. Tuve que mostrar el monedero vacío para que el verdulero me aceptara el billete, y luego, compartir sus quejas. Tomo dos o tres colectivos diariamente y el desafío de cada mañana es conseguir el preciado metal, a lo que se agrega la posibilidad de que la moneda no pase por la máquina porque es falsa. Voy al banco a pedir monedas y me dan sólo y, a veces, $ 5 con cara de pocos amigos. La lista sigue. Ni hablar de los que viajan largas distancias donde el boleto cuesta más que $4, obviamente, en monedas.
“O las monedas se fueron con el flautista de Hamelin o los responsables de regular su normal circulación no se enteran o no resuelven el enorme problema cotidiano que significa contar con ese elemento todos los días. A ver si nos evitan a rebuscar en carteras, mendigar al prójimo, pelearse con los comerciantes o hacerse adicto a los caramelos para obtener cambio en quioscos.”
The lack of coins reached an all-time high in January 2008. Businesses highly dependent on coins had to obtain coins on the black-market, where they paid up to 108 pesos for 100 pesos in coins.
Demonstration and Strikes
Inflation is high and the already low wages are rarely adjusted, this often leads to strikes in the city. During my stay in Buenos Aires the subway, the train, the taxis and the airport were all at least one day unavailable, because of a strike.
Many times I was stuck in traffic or the public transportation was closed, because of a demonstration. Even the UADE was closed several times, because demonstration made it impossible to hold lectures in the campus.
During March and July 2008 Argentina’s farmers started four strikes against an agricultural government reform. During weeks roads and highways were being blocked to avoid trucks transporting agricultural products. The effects of these blocks were notable in the whole country. In Buenos Aires there was a shortage of many agricultural products. The strikes were a response to newly imposed export taxes. Nationwide thousands of people protested in support of the farmers.
Background of the farmer strike
In March 2008 the government of Christina Kirchner, the current president, announced an increase in taxes on soybean exports from 35% to 45% and other new taxes including one on wheat export were introduced. The argentine minister of economy Martin Lousteau based his decision on a number of factors. He argued that these taxes help to avoid a return to a state of hyperinflation and reduce the domination of monocultural soy productions on the agricultural land. Soy is mainly cultivated for export and in order to assure the supply in the domestic market for other products like meat, wheat and vegetable oil Lousteau decided that there needs to be an increase in export taxes.
Argentina is the third largest soybean producer in the world. Its agricultural sector is mainly dominated by big monopolies and landowners which increasingly use land for the cultivation of soy for export. The increased use of land for soy-production and the lowering of the export quota on wheat in January 2008 led to a high increase in the domestic price of wheat. The price augmented from 500 to 700 pesos within a few weeks.
The countries soil is one of the best in the world for the cultivation of many agricultural products. At the same time the landowners and producers have the advantage of extremely low labour costs.
The taxes are a movement of the government to reduce the profits of the already very powerful agricultural monopolies. Christina Kirchner, the president, described these big farmers as ‘oligarchs’ and announced to redistribute some of their wealth with these taxes.
The government is highly reliant on the revenue of the taxes. “This is a government that does not stop spending and this is putting in danger its capacity to pay debt,” said Francisco Mezzadri, an independent economist in Buenos Aires.
In July 2008 the Argentine Senate rejected the plan of Mrs. Kirchners government, which has lost a lot of supporters during the whole conflict. Her approval votes were dropping as low as 20 percent in some polls according to the New York Times.
The rejection was a very dramatic marathon session. Julio Cobos, the vice president of Kirchner’s government broke a tie and voted against its own government in favour of the farmers.
The Traffic and transportation in the city
Like any big city Buenos Aires has a lot of traffic. During rush-hours it’s very slow to travel around in the city. Only the subway is a solution, but it’s revoltingly crowded and hot during rush-hours.
The public bus system is available during 24 hours. However, especially at night, waiting times can be really time-consuming and inestimable. A simpler option is to get hold of a taxi.
Buenos Aires has one of the highest taxi densities in the world. There are around 45’000 taxis driving around the city and despite high oil prices and steep price increases they remain relatively cheap.
The price fluctuations
Especially vegetables have impressive price-fluctuations. The price for a kilo of tomatoes tripled within 3 weeks in 2007 and ended up as high as almost 6USD per kilo, which lead to a big boycott of the supermarkets and a week of no tomatoes at all.
Tomato prices are usually at 1.50-2.00 pesos a Kilo (50-70 Swiss raps), however within a few weeks that price exploded. Consumer groups tried to get the prices lowered by boycotting the purchase of tomatoes, nevertheless the price kept rising until the association of Chinese supermarkets and other wholesalers boycotted tomatoes for a week.
The price of the tomato was in everyone’s mouth, it was one of the top topics just before the elections by the end of 2007. A radio comedian told ABC news that in recent days he can’t go a day without writing some material about tomatoes. Sample: “The tomato is a healthy food, except its price can make you sick!”
Or, “Instead of jewelry, people are taking their tomatoes to the pawn shop.”
According to Winograd, the director of Cinco al Dia, a non-governmental organization <span style=”color:black;font-family: “There are structural, seasonal and production problems that have contributed to a relative scarcity of tomatoes on the market,
Buenos Aires has like any big city in the world some problems with criminality. Pick pocketing is extremely common and passing around in the city and especially in all places with a lot of people one has to take extra care of his things.
Armed robberies do take place, but there are very few professional assaults. It is compared to other big Latin American cities very safe; however some precautious measures are advised.
Walking around at night, especially alone, should be avoided. Even in the better neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires it can get dodgy at nighttimes.
A lot of the small time criminality is linked to the drug-addiction and unemployment of young people and teenagers. According to the Spanish BBC website 50% of adolescents and young people in some areas of the city are addicted to crack-cocaine and its derivates.
At nighttimes in many of the neighbourhoods these young addicts are on the move to obtain the necessary cash to pay for the next dosage. I bumped into hundreds of those addicts, and usually they were not aggressive. A dosage is very cheap to obtain and they will usually be very thankful for a few cents of a peso.
In April the whole city was covered for days by a curtain of smoke, which led to delayed flights, increased road accidents and lead to road-shutdowns and coughing of all the residents.
“The smoke originated from hundreds of fires consuming more than 150,000 acres of grasslands about 120 miles northwest of the city” reported government officials.
Experts reported to the LA times that the fires might have been caused because “Farmers in South America routinely use fires to clear land for new plantings and to remove scrub.”
Local authorities and residents however believe that the spread of the fires was linked the political debate of the government and the farmers. The domestic airport got closed and several major highways were closed. Increased respiratory complaints and sore eyes kept hospital busy for days.
The government claims inflation to be only at 10% yearly, independent studies of economists however calculate it to 30% yearly. The government is using all statistical means to adjust the numbers down. According to Business Week, these independent rates put Argentina at the bottom of the Americas just behind Venezuela which has a rate of 32%.
Within 1 year the taxis raised their prices 46%. In some of my favourite restaurants the price of a Steak went from 18 pesos to 28 pesos, reflecting a 64% rise in prices.
Even when the government starts tightening up the money supply and the peso starts to value more against the dollar, prices keep on rising.
Shopping for agricultural products can be a difficult task in Buenos Aires. Frequently, popular products are short of supply or even unavailable. These empty shelves and unavailability of certain products occur when seasonal conditions lead to smaller yields in the agricultural sector as I learned from local vendors.
Moreover international food prices promise much higher profits and are preferred by the suppliers, therefore the domestic market is more volatile to a sudden drought for example.
What I brought home from my stay
Besides a suitcase full of memories I now master an additional foreign language and learned a lot about different cultures. I met people from all over the world and made friends with them. I acquired highly valuable knowledge and experiences in interpersonal skills.
All the political crises and debates in Buenos Aires were highly interesting and changed my thinking of politics forever.
Some of the courses in which I enrolled myself were really interesting and gave me a different view on subjects like marketing. Some of the Highlights were the guest-lecturers from Google and Santander bank.
Besides all the problems Argentina has, I urge every person that is travelling in South America to spend some time in Buenos Aires. It is an amazing and beautiful city.
It has an extraordinarily high standard on cultural activities and offers famous museums and parks, a lot of architectural highlights and many great restaurants. Almost during eight months people can enjoy a summer climate and the nightlife offers some of the craziest clubs in Latin-American.
I highly recommend to other people to spend some time abroad during their studies. The year I spent abroad in South America was exciting, fascinating, stimulating and a lot of fun!!!
I greatly thank the University of Applied Sciences and my parents for their enormous support.