Sergio Gómez and Carla Cavallini pose for a picture outside...

Sergio Gómez and Carla Cavallini pose for a picture outside their store, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Gómez and his wife are among a large group of Argentines who say their economic situation is worse now than a year ago as a consequence of a series of austerity and deregulation measures ordered by President Javier Milei in his first 100 days in office. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Sergio Gómez, a store owner in Buenos Aires, spends his days behind an empty counter, one nearly as empty as the large refrigerators in which he used to freeze meat. Above him, a blackboard displays outdated prices for the different cuts that he no longer sells.

The small grocery store he and his wife opened eight months ago is no longer viable. Sales plummeted at the beginning of the year as a sharp increase in grocery prices forced thousands of Argentines to modify their spending habits.

“First we decided to shut down part of the store and just sell meat and vegetables, but because of rising inflation and fewer people coming in, we had to shut down the butcher shop," said the 51-year-old butcher. "Now we have to shut down altogether. We can’t go on. We don’t have the resources.”

Gómez and his wife are among a large group of Argentines who say their economic situation is worse now than a year ago as a consequence of a series of austerity and deregulation measures ordered by President Javier Milei in his first 100 days in office.

Milei, a far-right economist, has said the measures are needed to help Argentina dodge the hyperinflation caused by populist policies of his predecessor, the left-of-center Alberto Fernández.

The burden of this inheritance explains in part the unprecedented tolerance expressed by many Argentines, whose support for their president remains strong — despite the worsening of their living conditions in the short term.

“How are we to blame Milei?” asked Carla Cavallini, Gómez’s wife. “I voted for him, and I have peace of mind, because he has been doing everything he said he would do. We knew this was going to happen,” she said referring to the dire economic situation they’re experiencing.

President Javier Milei flashes a thums up as he arrives...

President Javier Milei flashes a thums up as he arrives to Congress to address lawmakers during the opening of the legislative session, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 1, 2024. Milei, a far-right economist, ordered a series of austerity and deregulation measures to help Argentina dodge hyperinflation. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

A February survey by local pollster D’Alessio Irol/Berensztein found that 81% of 1,018 respondents nationwide say their economic situation is now worse off than a year ago. Still, Milei maintains an approval rating of 43% and, among his voters in the November runoff, support rises to 75%, according to the same poll.

A self-described anarcho-capitalist, Milei took office in December and almost immediately announced a series of shock measures, including a 50% devaluation of the nation’s currency, in hopes of eventually bringing the roaring inflation under control.

His government has also cut funding to provinces, eliminated some state subsidies to transportation and energy and ended a price control policy which was used by his predecessors as a tool to contain inflation.

But Milei's measures brought about an increase in prices, particularly in food and medicine. Monthly inflation in December reached 25.5%, the highest in three decades. Poverty skyrocketed in January to more than 50% and consumption collapsed to levels comparable to 2001, when a social outbreak put an early end to the then government.

Carla Cavallini poses for a picture inside the grocery store...

Carla Cavallini poses for a picture inside the grocery store she and her husband opened eight months ago, but that is no longer viable, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Cavallini and her husband are among a large group of Argentines who say their economic situation is worse now than a year ago as a consequence of a series of austerity and deregulation measures ordered by President Javier Milei in his first 100 days in office. Credit: AP/Natacha Pisarenko

“I am fully aware of what is happening in Argentina,” Milei said in a recent interview. “What happens is that correcting 100 years of disasters is not going to be free of charge, especially when it comes to the aberrations of the last 20 years,” he said referring to the policies implemented by Argentina's center-left governments.

“Half of the population thinks that in the long term things will be fine. We have never seen this in any previous crisis,” said Fernando Moiguer, a consultant who has measured the social mood of Argentines every month for a quarter of a century.

Overall, he says, Argentines feel that what was done before failed. “What they want (now) is someone to come and dismantle everything so we can be like the countries around us that don’t have as many problems as we do.”

A March survey by Moiguer found that 56% of 1,300 respondents considered that Milei’s adjustment and deregulation measures are “adequate” to improve the country's economic situation.

Milei, for his part, maintains that his measures are bearing fruit.

Inflation slowed to 13.2% in February, compared to 20.6% in January. The U.S. dollar, long prominent in Argentina, has stabilized while the fiscal deficit decreased, something that was welcomed by investors and the International Monetary Fund, to which Argentina is tied by a $45 billion loan it contracted in 2018.

Yet, low-income Argentines are left to take drastic measures on their own to survive.

Ámbar Imoberdoff, a 72-year-old retiree, started singing boleros and tangos in one of the busiest corners of Buenos Aires, because her pension — of roughly $140 a month — is not enough to buy food, medicine and pay for taxes and public services.

“These last few months have been terrible,” she said as she took a break before turning on the speaker and grabbing the microphone. “I think not for myself, but for the grandparents, some of whom can’t walk or do anything. I can walk, I can sing."

Thanks to her impromptu recitals, Imoberdoff, who is a widow and has no children, says she can earn up to $200 on a good night during the weekends. “God has given me a spirit of not giving in to things. Death is going to find me standing and singing,” she said.

Unlike her, 34-year-old Yohanna Torres wishes the weekends would end quickly. She does not measure time in hours but in the meals she and the four children she cares for skip. From Monday to Friday, she says, they eat at least once a day in a community kitchen in a suburb south of Buenos Aires.

“Saturdays and Sundays last an eternity because I don’t have bread to eat,” said Torres, who is unemployed and receives the equivalent of $200 per month in social assistance. Most of that money is used to care for her 2-year-old daughter Luján, who suffers from the respiratory consequences of COVID-19 that she contracted a few weeks after birth.

“I come to the soup kitchen because I don’t have anything to eat. If this shuts down, I’m going to go out and steal.”

Analysts acknowledge Milei still holds an important core of support among Argentines, but many wonder how long it will last.

“If society is determined that it wants to change, that it needs to change, the limits are going to be extended,” said Moiguer. “Of course everything has a limit. ... What this society needs is some kind of verifier that buys time along the way.”

He uses the metaphor of a child going from having a fever of 107 degrees to having his temperature drop to 99 degrees.

“A break in fever is the first sign that the doctor’s treatment was the right one,” said Moiguer.

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