In Argentina you can have black market money delivered to your doorstep as easily as ordering a pizza. It happens all the time, all over the city. In the country’s largest metro area, black market dollars are not exchanged in dark alleys or hidden offices. They’re exchanged openly, in public, every day. The Argentine government is known for being corrupt and inefficient and the thriving black market is something Congresso can’t stop.
In Buenos Aires’ Palermo barrio, a young German pulls his bicycle up to a Starbucks. With a messenger bag over his shoulders, he locks his bike to a stand on a street where tropical trees throw shade across upscale businesses. His customer, also German, is inside waiting for him. As the bicycle messenger approaches, the client, who has been reading on a sofa, stands. Exchanging a slight greeting they get to business.
Passing 214 euros to the courier, the bike messenger pulls 3,000 pesos out of his satchel. For an identical quantity of euros, the Argentine ATM on the corner would have disgorged 1,712 pesos.
Welcome to Mobile Wechselstube, a take-out service for currency. If a person needs euros or American dollars, Mobile Wechselstube, Mobile Exchange in English, has everything. Send the company a text message and tell them how much you want. Saying where and when, a courier will arrive soon. The only stipulation is the recipient has to have a bank account overseas.
Mobile Exchange is a way for expats and tourists to slide by Argentina’s official rate and get a better value for their dollars or euros. Clients use PayPal and the exchange tacks on a surcharge of 5 percent as their profit.
Fabian Gerber, the mobile exchange’s founder, is a toy maker from Germany. Seeing an opportunity handed to him by Argentina’s lousy economy, Gerber started the company several months ago. Gerber makes a nice profit in a country where more money gets swapped on the black market than using government channels.
Argentines have no faith in the peso whose value fluctuates wildly. With this year’s high inflation, 30 percent in January alone, locals are desperate to get their hands on foreign money. The peso has had its problems before. Many Argentines feel accustomed to financial crises which happen roughly every 10 to 12 years. Most recently, the last crisis happened in 2002 when the country defaulted on thousands of millions of dollars in debt. Then, astronomical inflation saw the peso’s value sliced in half and banks froze citizens’ accounts to keep them from withdrawing money. Jobless rates and poverty went through the roof and recovery is still going on.
Thousands of Argentines waited in banks for hours last month when Congresso allowed some Argentines to withdraw $300 dollars. The sum was so small, and the procedure so intricate, that a businessman called it just “…makeup on the government’s face.” The allowance was only a method for politicians to make-believe they were catering to citizens’ ultimatums while not helping them.
Meanwhile, the black market, and Mobile Exchange, grows. Gerber, or one of his employees, hops the ferry across Rio de Plata to swap euros for Argentine pesos in Uruguay. Uruguay values Argentina’s peso at a lower rate than does the Argentine government. The Gerbers skirt the law because all money transfers, through PayPal, technically occur past the reach of Argentina.
Buenos Aires attorney, Marcelo Zifferman, claims that Mobile Exchange is still breaking the law as the cash swap occurs inside Argentina. Strictly speaking, only government-approved banks and exchange houses can swap dollars for pesos, Mobile Exchange solves this dilemma by not keeping books and operating without a license. Zifferman claims the business is avoiding taxes and is trafficking money. Zifferman also concedes that is not rare in Argentina.
Black market vendors, such as Ramon Marciel, who has owned an arbolito — change house — on Florida Street, have been around for years. Although he knowingly breaks federal laws daily, he doesn’t see a reason to be afraid of a crackdown on off-the-books trading. “The black market centers never close,” Marciel says. “Although it’s illegal, it will always exist in Argentina.”
By Jerry Nelson