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Despair in Once-Proud Argentina

"Am I proud of what we did?" he added. "No, of course not. Would I do it again? Yes, of course. You start to live by different rules."

Reality of Rural Hunger

For some rural families, the crisis has gone further. It has generated something rarely seen in Argentina: hunger. In the province of Tucuman, an agricultural zone of 1.3 million people, health workers say cases of malnutrition have risen 20 percent to 30 percent over the previous year.

In March, slum dwellers competed for meat from an injured cow after a cattle truck overturned on a highway in Rosario. "I felt like we had become a pack of wild animals," one participant said. (Enrique Rodriguez-La Capital - Reuters)

Nation in Collapse: A look at poverty, unemployment and the price of food in Argentina.
Argentina, Shortchanged: Former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz explains why the once-prosperous country is in economic meltdown: because it followed the advice of the International Monetary Fund.
_____News from Argentina_____
Uruguay to Inaugurate Leftist President (Associated Press, Mar 1, 2005)
Argentina Completes Debt Restructuring (Associated Press, Feb 25, 2005)
Nadal Ousts Third Seed Canas in Acapulco (Reuters, Feb 25, 2005)
Calleri, Puerta Gain Mexican Open Semis (Associated Press, Feb 25, 2005)
Stomach Injury Sidelines Gaudio (Associated Press, Feb 24, 2005)
More News from Argentina

"I wish they would cry," whispered Beatriz Orresta, 20, looking at her two young sons in a depressed Tucuman sugar cane town in the shadow of the Andes. "I would feel much better if they cried."

Jonatan, 2, resting on the dirt floor behind the family's wooden shack, and Santiago, the 7-month-old she cradled in her arms, lay listlessly.

"They don't act it, but they're hungry. I know they are," she said.

Orresta can tell. Jonatan is lethargic. His lustrous brown hair has turned a sickly carrot color. Clumps of it sometimes fall out at night as Orresta strokes him to sleep. Santiago hardly seems to mind that Orresta, weak and malnourished herself, stopped lactating months ago. The infant, sucking on a bottle of boiled herbal tea, stares blankly with sunken eyes.

Six months ago, the boys were the loudest complainers when their regular meals stopped. Orresta's husband, Hector Ariel, 21, had his $100 monthly salary as a sugar cane cutter slashed almost in half when candy companies and other sugar manufacturers in the rural enclave of Rio Chico, 700 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, were stung by dried-up credit and a massive drop in national consumption.

Ariel now earns just over $1.50 a day, not enough for the family to survive. The peso's plunge has generated inflation of more than 33 percent during the first seven months of the year, more than double the government's projection for the entire year.

Goods not in high demand, such as new clothing, have not gone up significantly in price, but staples that families need for daily subsistence have doubled or tripled. The last time inflation hit Argentina -- in the late 1980s, when it rose to a high of 5,000 percent -- the unemployment rate was half the current 21.5 percent and most salaries were indexed to inflation. Today, there are no such safety nets.

"I could buy rice for 30 cents a kilo last year," Orresta said. "It's more than one peso 50 now."

"At least we will eat tonight, that's the important thing," she said, stirring an improvised soup.

The concoction, water mixed with the dried bones of a long-dead cow her husband found in an abandoned field, had been simmering for two days. The couple had not eaten in that time. It had been 24 hours since the children ate.

Orresta, like most mothers in her village, started trimming costs by returning to cloth diapers for her two young boys when the price of disposable ones doubled with inflation. But then she could no longer afford the soap to wash them, and resorted to reusing the same detergent four or five times. The children began to get leg rashes.

By late January, the family could no longer afford daily meals. A month later, Jonatan's hair began turning reddish and, later, falling out. Although he has just turned 2, Jonatan still cannot walk and has trouble focusing his eyes.

Orresta stopped lactating in April. But the price of powdered milk had almost tripled by then, from three pesos for an 800-gram box to more than eight pesos. At those prices, the family can afford 11 days of milk a month. The rest of the time, Santiago drinks boiled maté, a tea that also serves as an appetite suppressant.

"You know, we're not used to this, not having enough food," said Orresta, with a hint of embarrassment in her voice.

She paused, and began to weep.

"You can't know what it's like to see your children hungry and feel helpless to stop it," she said. "The food is there, in the grocery store, but you just can't afford to buy it anymore. My husband keeps working, but he keeps bringing home less and less. We never had much, but we always had food, no matter how bad things got. But these are not normal times."

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