Argentines escape economic pain with film about past crisis

As Argentina’s economy buckles, people flock to see Heroic Losers – a film set during the 2001 financial meltdown.

Argentina Heroic Losers
La Odisea de los Giles (Heroic Losers), a film set during Argentina's economic crisis of 2001, has proven so popular that it dethroned Disney's The Lion King at the box office [File: Courtesy of Monica Yanakiew/Al Jazeera]

Buenos Aires, Argentina – When 79-year-old actor Luis Brandoni agreed to play the part of a victim of Argentina‘s 2001 economic collapse, he never imagined that crowds would be lining up to relive – and laugh at – one of the country’s most traumatic experiences.

La Odisea de los Giles (Heroic Losers) premiered in August, as Argentines were scrambling to empty their bank accounts, fearing history might repeat itself. The film brings back painful memories, but in times of financial turmoil and political uncertainty, the homemade comedy has become an instant blockbuster, dethroning Disney’s The Lion King at the box office.

“The timing was sheer coincidence,” said Brandoni. “I believe the film’s success is also due to the fact that Argentines feel somehow avenged. Contrary to what happened to millions – myself included – the characters in the movie stage a heist and recover the money taken from them.”

The story takes place 18 years ago. A group of neighbours in a rural town pool together their lives’ savings to buy and restore an abandoned grain silo. They deposit the money hours before the government suddenly freezes bank accounts – a move that leads to mass protests, the downfall of five presidents within two weeks, and the largest sovereign debt default in history. The Argentine peso, which had been pegged to the dollar for a decade, lost two-thirds of its value overnight.

“I had $70,000 in the bank and was paid back some of it over the following 12 years,” Brandoni tells Al Jazeera. “But there were those who lost all they had, and did not live to see better days”.

Today Argentina is on the brink of its second massive debt default in less than two decades. Congress has just approved an emergency bill, freeing up resources for social plans and soup kitchens.

Guillermo Nielsen and the shoeshiner
Former Argentine Finance Secretary Guillermo Nielsen gets his shoes shined regularly by Mario Vinaya. In August, the 59-year-old shoe shiner charged Nielsen 90 pesos for a polish. In October, he raised the price to 120 pesos [File: Courtesy of Monica Yanakiew/Al Jazeera]

Hanging by a thread

Many are questioning whether the current turmoil could balloon into an economic catastrophe like the one that engulfed the country in 2001, or the 1989 crisis, when the Argentine government was facing bankruptcy and hyperinflation.

“There are common denominators which cause concern,” political analyst Rosendo Fraga tells Al Jazeera. “On all three occasions, the economy was fragile; the government had just suffered an electoral defeat, leading to an escalation of the crisis and the loss of foreign investors’ support, and people took to the streets.”

Argentina’s recession-hit economy was dealt a blow after business-friendly President Mauricio Macri suffered a resounding defeat in August’s presidential primaries, making his re-election highly unlikely.

All expectations are that centre-left opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez will win the presidency in the first round of voting, on October 27.

In the meantime, the country’s economy is hanging by a thread.

“We’re living in a limbo. We have a president who can’t do much because his days are numbered, and a virtual president who can’t govern because he has yet to be elected,” economist Raul Ochoa tells Al Jazeera.

“Macri’s only plan is to keep a lid on the dollar and on social unrest until the end of his term, in December.” he added.

In September, the government imposed capital controls to shore up the peso and defend its foreign currency reserves, which slumped from $66.3bn before the primaries to $49.8bn by mid-September. The Argentine currency plummeted sharply in the wake of the shock primary results, fuelling inflation that is now running at over 50 percent on an annualised basis. 

Rosendo Fraga, Political Analyst Argentina
Political analyst Rosendo Fraga sees ‘common denominators between the current economic crisis and those of 2001 and 1989’ [File: Courtesy of Monica Yanakiew/Al Jazeera]

Old habits

Former finance secretary Guillermo Nielsen helped renegotiate Argentina’s debt 16 years ago, and is an economic adviser to leading presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez.

Nielsen’s office, in the centre of Buenos Aires, is just a few blocks away from the stand of Mario Vinaya, a 59-year-old shoe shiner who has been working on the same corner for the past three decades – and serving Nielsen as one of his faithful clients. In August, he charged Nielsen 90 pesos for a polish. By mid-September, he raised the price to 100 pesos. By the start of October, it was 120 pesos.

When Nielsen asked Vinaya why he was raising the price, he answered: “I am charging you the same as always: three dollars.” Unpredictable economic measures – and chronic inflation, which is now running at over 50 percent on an annualised basis – have led Argentines to think in dollars, even though they make a living in pesos. It is an old habit they are rapidly picking up again.

Nielsen says the country has already defaulted on its debt in pesos. “The difference between now and 2001 is that the financial system is stronger,” he tells Al Jazeera. “On the other hand, inflation was not a problem in 2001, as it was in 1989 and today. This will make economic recovery much more difficult.”

Since her husband lost his job in 2001, Maria Castillo has been making a living picking up other people’s rubbish. Over the years, “cartoneros” or litter pickers like her have formed cooperatives – and a group called the Movement of Excluded Workers.

On an average day, litter pickers were making $20 diving into the rubbish bins of Buenos Aires, fishing for plastic bottles, cardboard, paper – and anything else they could sell to recyclers.

“Now we are back to where we started – and even worse,” says Castillo, a 43-year-old mother of two. “Poverty and unemployment have risen, so there are more of us rummaging garbage and less leftovers to share. It doesn’t take an economist to tell me how bad things are.”

Every day, around 10 people reach out to Castillo’s cooperative asking for work. Some of them are teachers who cannot make ends meet. Social organisations and trade unions are back on the streets, protesting against austerity measures introduced by President Macri to comply with the International Monetary Fund‘s $57bn bailout agreement with Argentina.

Maria Castello at protest
Maria Castillo (left) has been making a living picking up other people’s rubbish since her husband lost his job during the 2001 economic crisis [File: Courtesy of Monica Yanakiew/Al Jazeera]

Claudio Chaves has seen many crises in his lifetime, and they have taught him a lesson: never trust banks or governments. That is why the 66-year-old history teacher has always saved in dollars and stashed his money at home.

Eighteen years ago, Chaves had $55,000 in plastic Tupperware containers buried in his back yard. “When I hid them underground, they were worth 55,000 pesos. When I dug them out, after the devaluation, they were worth four times more,” he recalls.

In the opening scene of La Odisea de los Giles (Heroic Fools) the narrator explains that the word “gil” is a synonym for naive and gullible – like the hard-working Argentines who were foolish enough to follow the rules and trust institutions. “Had it not been for the fact that the losers beat the system in the end, the film would have been a tragic reminder of our successive failures,” says Chaves.

Now many Argentines are hoping the movie is not also a premonition of what is to come.

Source: Al Jazeera