Article by Brennan Lake.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” So is a mind and a college degree, yet I felt that I would not be able to put mine to great use upon graduating in 2009, when the world economy was teetering on the edge of the abyss, and six percent unemployment was considered a scandal. Using the grim job market at home as an excuse for travel, I took the crisis by the horns and moved to Argentina where a robust demand for English teachers promised employment. Having studied abroad in the bohemian city of Valparaiso, Chile, two years prior, I assumed that I would find myself in familiar surroundings living in the land of Che. But the familiarities I encounter teaching business English in the cosmopolitan Buenos Aires are more reminiscent of life back home, of people struggling to make their bottom line under the looming specter of financial crisis.
My work day starts at Cooperacion America, a conglomerate owned by one of Argentina’s seven billionaires. The office building is as monolithic as its name. Curiously nestled among Italian cafes and art studios in the chic neighborhood of “Palermo Soho,” Cooperacion America’s headquarters are windowless and guarded by men in black aviators who rival the queen’s guard in stoicism. Once inside, however, all of the warm familiarities of Argentine culture remain intact. I meet my student in her office, and together we go to the less formal surroundings of the office cafeteria. Getting there severely cuts into class time since nearly everyone we pass greets us with a kiss on the cheek and an inquiry into our well being. Water coolers, it seems, need not be present for small talk.
Silvina considers her English lessons to be a sacred retreat from her busy day as a financial consultant for one of the cooperation’s many companies. A young professional with advanced degrees in art history and capital markets, Silvina has no problem dissecting the articles we read from American periodicals. While reading an article on the Greek debt crisis with a vague Oxbridge accent, she stops at the word ‘bailout,’ and says “I just don’t understand this.” I start explaining to her the literal meaning of bail out, pantomiming the bailing of a ship when she stops me – preventing further embarrassment – and assures me that she understands perfectly well what it means. What confounds her is the notion that Greece is worth bailing out, while Argentina was allowed to default into financial ruins nearly a decade before. We put the article aside, and she turns back the page to 2001 when the streets of Buenos Aires looked like the protest filled streets of Athens, when the world froze Argentina’s line of credit, and Argentina froze its peoples’ bank accounts, and the once shining star of South America turned into a barter economy.
Leaving the office, walking through one of Buenos Aires’ many fashionable neighborhoods, it is difficult to visualize the incinerated roadblocks that littered the streets in 2001, or the mobs of people – from masked youth hurling maltov cocktails at bank windows, to bourgeois women in fur coats banging pots and pans – demanding access to their bank accounts. While civil protests are not uncommon, the Buenos Aires of today offers more quotidian commotion – bustling streets and crammed subways that would give Tokyo’s commuters a run for their money.
I arrive to my next class in the financial district with American punctuality, giving me a couple of minutes to review the lesson plan before my student arrives. Whenever Guillermo shows up, we begin a casual chat that invariably consumes the greater part of the hour, this time it is regarding Argentina’s bicentennial anniversary of independence. While I express my excitement for having been present for such an historical celebration, Guillermo is ambivalent at best. He equates the expensive shows of nationalism and extravagant parades to the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire. “What do we have to be proud about?” he asks me, adding that “what we should be celebrating is 1910, not 2010.” He is referring to a time in which Argentina was one of the world’s richest nations, when robust exports allowed for a wealth of European opulence and populous to enter the country and characterize Buenos Aires as the “Paris of the South.”
There tends to be a sense of nationalistic emasculation whenever the economy is brought up in conversation, especially when talking to those of comfortable means. But that is not to say that Guillermo paints his whole country black. He, too, brings up the 2001 financial crisis, but his emphasis is on the resilience of the Argentine people. “It was incredible,” he tells me “one day people woke up and their life savings had vanished, but they still got their coffee and showed up to work, even if their bosses did not, even if there was no work to do!” Indeed, the unsurpassed Argentine work ethic – perhaps the nation’s least European quality – is the moxie that maintains a lifestyle once sustained by easy credit and an overvalued currency.
And so in keeping with my adopted work habits, when the clock strikes five I am off to teach three more classes. I end my day at Saké Argentina, a film production studio whose average worker is under thirty five. Entering into the renovated brownstone that Saké calls home is like walking onto the set of a mod film shot in swinging London. Here I can loosen my tie, kick back in a vintage velvet chair, and casually teach while sharing a gourde of yerba mate with my students. Although the personalities are laid back, the office pace is often frenetic, especially when a production’s deadline is fast approaching. Because of this I never quite know who I am teaching on a given day. While at one moment I am engaged in a fast paced conversation about Argentine cinema with Mauro, a film director, the next he is off to complete an edit, at which point the young doorman Esteban takes his place, and we go over his English assignments from college. When Mauro returns, the three of us spiral into Spanglish rants on Argentina’s national selection for the World Cup (always a moot topic).
When it comes to business structure, Sake throws hierarchy out the door; education and class are trumped by talent and creativity. In this sense, it is a meritocracy where the individualistic qualities of the artist and entrepreneur are complemented by a supportive community of like minded individuals. This is perhaps the most promising glimpse that I saw into Argentina’s economic future. By capturing the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism, and nurturing it in a communal and hardworking environment that is uniquely South American, Sake’s model offers a middle path between the extremes of neoliberalism and peronism that all too often overshadow sensible approaches to a successful political economy. Whenever I ask members of the Sake team about their thoughts on these issues, however, they usually offer a thoughtful opinion, followed by my favorite Argentine expression of humility: “Pero que se yo?” “But what do I know?”
Economists agree that 2011 is the developing world’s year to shine as stellar growth rates in emerging market economies sustain a global recovery. A year spent living and working in Argentina makes me incredibly optimistic about this forecast. It also makes me realize that it is not necessary to travel to the ends of the world (or at least the continent) to discover the values that make economic well being less of an uncertainty. Indeed, the qualities that are alive and well in the Argentine work force – resilience, resourcefulness, and entrepreneurial spirituality – are values at once American, and now universal.
Photo Credit: Clare McInerney