Emigrants from Argentina del corralito, 20 years later

“From one moment to the next we were left without bank accounts, without cash and with nothing. You don’t understand how it could happen, but it happened and it was tremendous. “On December 3, two decades ago, Leo Falcone, like millions of Argentines, woke up without being able to access his savings in the bank. The offices were closed, the ATMs were turned off and one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America was heading towards collapse.

The financial corralito, the limitation imposed by the Government of Fernando de la Rúa to extract money from the banks, was the “trigger” for Leo to decide to leave his country and come to Spain to find a better life. “Argentina at that time aborted us and the mother country Spain welcomed us with open arms”, says Alejandra Sanfelice, another of the 128,000 migrants who arrived in our country “with what they were wearing” after the 2001 crisis.

Several of them now recall with RTVE.es how the economic collapse of that turbulent start of the century was experienced in Argentina and what it was that led them to come to Spain. Although of different ages, professions and social classes, they all agree on something, answering with a resounding “no” when asked if they want to return to their land. “It makes me very sad to understand that I am going to end up dying here. It makes me sad that I can’t even dream of living in Argentina again, because since I came here it has only gotten worse, “says Alejandra.

December 2001: “People walked dead while alive”

The crisis was already coming from before. Argentina, although accustomed to economic ups and downs, was immersed since 1998 in its longest recession, and months before the corralito began there was already “serious rumors” that cash withdrawals would begin to be limited, remembers Leo, who was 23 years old at the time and worked in his parents’ furniture factory.

When the Government applied an unprecedented banking restriction in the world, in order to stop the drain on deposits unleashed precisely by those rumors, began the panic that was wanted to avoid. “People walked down the street dead while they were alive, they had lost all their savings,” says Pablo Ezequiel Barcia, who was 32 years old and ran the canteen of a sports club. His “business suffered a precipitous decline,” he continues.

The tension increased during the following days, the demonstrations took place in front of the Casa Rosada, the seat of the Government, and the National Congress. The state of siege was applied and the security forces came out to suppress the protests, leaving 39 dead. “I saw the repressions that were in the street with the mounted police, and I cried. It gave me a feeling of chaos, of uncertainty, that everything was going to hell,” recalls Alejandra, then 25 years old.

It gave me a feeling of chaos, of uncertainty, that everything was going to hell

Every night, the neighbors went out to the streets to ring their saucepans, “like you used to go out at 8 in the afternoon to applaud the toilets,” says Cynthia Verónica Vera, who left Argentina shortly after the crisis began. Finally, the tension increased to the point that de la Rúa ended up fleeing by helicopter and leaving the government on December 20, in what became known as the ‘Argentinazo’. “The president who put the state of siege ended up under siege”, points out Diego Arcos, an expatriate in Barcelona, ​​recovering a phrase that became a popular saying.

De la Rúa leaves the Casa Rosada by helicopter. Edgardo Gómez / EFE Archive

Emigrate with what you wear: “I had only for the flight and a month’s rent”

That only increased instability in a country mired in chaos, where unemployment, poverty and inflation rates skyrocketed. “It was not only an economic disaster, but a social, cultural disaster. Imagine that one day you wake up ten times poorer than you are “, says Graciela Kessel.

When the crisis began, this doctor was 42 years old and had just opened a children’s rehabilitation center, in which she invested all her savings together with her husband. Following the corralito and the devaluation of the Argentine peso – which meant that “all the money turned into confetti” – had to close. “I didn’t even have a profit from my business. It’s like you take $ 60,000, put it in a bag and throw it in the container.”

The problem is that salaries were still in pesos while the debt was in dollars, which led to an impoverishment that spread throughout the population. Even those who had no savings in the bank, something common in Argentina due to distrust in the face of these crises, they saw their money devalued “and became confetti.”

It’s like if you grab $ 60,000, put it in a bag and throw it in the bin.

Added to this was the fear of going out into increasingly violent streets. On just two months into the hectic 2002, they suffered two violent robberies. Her husband was shot in the head “but the shot did not go off.” For them, that was the moment that triggered their decision to come to Spain. “That was the trigger, we got here,” he says. They threw away “more than a thousand resumes” until his partner found a job as a doctor in Ceuta, “where Spanish doctors don’t want to go.” There they went with “a whole life in a suitcase and a teenage daughter who had a very bad time.”

For Cynthia, who was 23 years old when the corralito happened, the decision to leave was immediate, and it came after her parents lost their home due to the “dollarization” of the mortgage. “I trusted a bank and the bank – or the State, I don’t care – kept something that was mine. I never got it back. So I left Argentina very angry, and that hurts you because it’s your country,” he acknowledges.

I trusted a bank and the bank kept something that was mine. I never got it back

One Friday she left her two jobs as a private teacher and a laboratory technician, and with the little compensation money she paid for a ticket to Spain to fly on Sunday. “I had only for the flight and a month’s rent in Ibiza”, where he left without contacts or papers to find his life.

On Argentina kept all their savings, about $ 28,000, Since who could kept their money in the US currency due to the fragility of the peso. When he was finally able to get it out of the bank, the new law forced him to “pesify” the dollar, so with the new devalued currency he was left with just the equivalent of 1,000 euros.

In Pablo’s case, the spark that made him leave Argentina was the realization of the cyclical history of crises in the southern country. “I looked back and it was like seeing everything my father went through, that is, I’m going to be going up and down all my life”, reminisce.

The country had already suffered in recent decades economic disasters such as hyperinflation in the late 1980s, which brought a previous generation of emigrants to Spain, and images of Queues at the Spanish consulate in Buenos Aires to get passports. Thanks to the fact that many Argentines were the children of Spanish or Italian immigrants, they were able to obtain the nationality that allowed them to live in Europe.

Looking at Argentina today, one of the so-called emerging economies, with growth rates of eight percent per year, it is difficult to imagine that ten years ago it experienced the worst crisis in its modern history. It was the so-called “corralito”, the drastic measure adopted by the Government to prevent capital flight, when the country was bankrupt. In fact, the State ended up suspending the payment of its gigantic foreign debt. Today we recover those images of long lines at the doors of the banks and protests in the streets and the story of some of the protagonists of that moment.

“You are here, but with a broken heart”

Our country is home to the largest Argentine colony abroad, with 90,000 people that reached 153,000 in 2005, after the crisis of the corralito. All the expatriates who participate in this report have nothing but words of thanks for Spain. “I felt very welcome. Many people told me that they were very grateful to Argentina for the hand it had given to Spain in the postwar period, with the boats that Perón sent with cereals and meat when he was going hungry here, “says Alejandra.

He acknowledges that the first year he spent in Ibiza was tough. “You are here, but with a broken heart. You are in limbo, withered and dying, missing a lot what you left behind and you have not yet inserted yourself in this society, “she assures. 20 years later, living in various parts of the Alicante coast, she says she feels rooted in Spain, although she still cries when he returns to Buenos Aires for Christmas.

When they arrived in the early 2000s, Spain was doing well, defended the then president José María Aznar. The economy was growing and the construction bubble was swelling, allowing many Argentines to find work easily, especially in the tourism sector.

For all interviewees, hardened by the 2001 disaster, the 2008 crisis was not a “trauma”, as Cynthia says. “It happens to any Argentine when we talk about a crisis. For you it is a crisis that you go to buy a carton of milk and instead of a euro it is worth 1.10, but for us it is when it is worth 10 or 20 euros,” he says wryly.

Pablo has also experienced that culture shock. “My friends in Argentina are surprised when I tell them that here I have been earning the same for 20 years, just a little more.” Cynthia still finds it strange to be able to go to an ATM down the street, while Graciela is in awe of being able to go out at night with her jewelry on.

Now, 20 years after one of the worst crises in Argentina, the ghosts of the corralito reappear in Argentina. Seenelve the ghost of inflation (which exceeds the annual growth of 50%, compared to 5.3% in Spain), an endemic disease that never completely disappeared, the recession, the devaluation of the peso and rumors about new banking restrictions.

Although later they prove false, the trauma of that December and everything that came after remains in the minds of the thousands of Argentines who had to flee. Alive enough that they don’t want to go back to living in their homeland. “On the one hand, there is this joy of having been brave and venturing out to look for a better future and having achieved it. But on the other, there is the thorn of seeing it impossible to return,” concludes Alejandra.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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