Sunday, December 3, 2017

Would You Like the Good News First? Money & Visa Updates

In the context of southern South America, two topics about which I often write are money and visas, and on both I have good news and bad news. Here, today, I’ll deal with the two topics separately.

Less than two weeks ago, I dealt with the issue of Argentina’s ATMs and the fact that they’re such a quilombo (a slang term, meaning a mess, that derives from an earlier usage that meant a brothel). I haven’t used an ATM in that time but good news is that, according to The Wall Street Journal’s local correspondent Taos Turner, Argentine banks have raised the limit for individual transactions to A$3,300 (about US$192; when I made my last withdrawal, I could only obtain A$2,000, about US$143). This is a step forward, though it still doesn’t come close to the permitted amounts from Chilean and Uruguayan ATMs.
For foreign account-holders, the cost of an Argentine ATM transaction rose by 67 percent in November.
The bad news is that the banks have raised their transaction charge to A$175 (almost exactly US$10), as opposed to the previous charge of A$106.20 (about US$6). That sounds bad, and it is, but with the new withdrawal limit that amounts to only 5.3 percent as opposed the earlier 5.31 percent. In Argentine banking, that appears to count as progress…

In visa matters, the news is better, especially for Australians and Canadians. Early last year, Argentina suspended its so-called “reciprocity fee” for US visitors, in hopes that Argentines would gain access to the United States’ Visa Waiver Program, which permits cheaper and more expeditious travel to the Colossus of the North. That, however, occurred before a far more xenophobic administration took over the US government, and Chile remains the only South American country eligible for the Visa Waiver (unless you want to count Guyane, which is an overseas département of France). In principle, if the US refuses to reciprocate, Argentina could reinstate the fee for US visitors.
Soon, both Australian and Canadian visitors will be exempt from Argentina's "reciprocity" fee.
Recently, however, it’s taken steps in the other direction. The previous Argentine administration had also inflicted “reciprocity” fees on Australians and Canadians, but the current government eliminated the fee for Aussies last July, and has taken steps to to do so for Canadians by the first of the year. Nationals of both countries will find one less obstacle if they desire to visit Buenos Aires and beyond.

Brazil is also making it a bit easier to visit that country although, in my opinion, it still has a long way to go. I’ve not crossed the Brazilian border in some time, but applying for a Brazilian visa has always been inconvenient. It used to involve going in person but, when I tried to do so in Buenos Aires, the consulate there informed me that they could not issue a visa because my intended visit was too far in the future (to the best of my memory, it was two or three months before). I was able to get one-day service at the Puerto Iguazú consulate, to cross to the Brazilian side of the falls, but they would only accept payment in Argentine pesos, even though the visa fee was advertised in US dollars.
For US passport holders, the pleasure of a day-trip from Argentina to Brazil's side of Iguazú Falls will still cost US$160.
Now, though, intending visit can apply for the visa online, but the Brazilians are still missing an opportunity that the Argentines are taking advantage of—eliminating the visa entirely would do much more to encourage travel to South America’s largest country. In fact, the Brazilians did so briefly last year, when they suspended all tourist visa requirements during the Olympics.

The argument, of course, is that as long as the US and other countries oblige Brazilians to obtain advance visas, it’s only fair Brazil should require the same for citizens of those countries. To some degree I sympathize with that argument and, as an advocate of open borders, I think US visa requirements are far too restrictive. That said, from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, Brazil gains nothing from subjecting potential visitors to bureaucratic obstacles. Argentina appears to have learned that lesson.

Monday, November 27, 2017

¿Peronismo Vegetariano?

Some time ago, I wrote a post that touched on the topic of so-called Peronist cuisine, which almost seems an oxymoron—the working-class followers of Argentina’s legendary strongman Juan Domingo Perón were not exactly known for their culinary sophistication. Still, there’s a stereotypical roster of basic dishes that appeal to the so-called descamisados (shirtless ones) who comprise(d) the Peronist base (perhaps as Kentucky coal miners might appreciate Donald Trump’s overcooked steak with ketchup).
Last week, I decided to try the fare at Palermo Hollywood’s Perón Perón, in an area that’s not home to many descamisados, and is walking distance from our own Palermo apartment. One might argue that it’s an Argentine analogue to Tom Wolfe’s “radical chic,” with middle-class diners indulging themselves with somewhat more sophisticated versions of working-class comfort food. When I arrived around 7:30 pm, relatively early by Argentine standards, a BBC film crew was interviewing chef Gonzalo Alderete Pagés, who spoke more than passable English.
The BBC speaks to the chef.
I was pleasantly surprised with the food. The menu does feature a lot of heavy comfort food such as guiso de mondongo (tripe stew) and various incarnations of milanesa (chicken-fried steak), but I chose to go vegetarian with canelones de acelga (chard cannelloni; I really like chard, and my late mother-in-law made terrific chard pie even though she wasn’t much of a cook otherwise).
I was pleased with my chard cannelloni.

Never before had I seen an asparagus empanada.
The oddest item was an asparagus empanada, which aroused my curiosity as I’d never heard of such a thing before; it was fried but not too heavy, though I would have preferred a bit more asparagus in it. My glass of Domingo Hermanos Malbec came chilled, which is how my late father-in-law took red wine (as do many other Argentines). The wine list focuses on vintages from the Andean Northwest. For dessert, I had a satisfying rich dark chocolate mousse.
The dining area is full of Peronist iconography.
I should add that the service was surprising good, which is not something you anticipate from a movement that prides itself on labor militancy (spoiler: they were all wearing shirts). The décor, of course is a shrine to Perón and Evita (and their would-be successors Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner), and thus more than a bit kitschy. I’d happily go back, but I think I might prefer winter when I could order something like locro, a northern Andean stew whose warm heaviness would be welcome in cooler weather (though this spring has been mild in town).
Peronist sloganeering is part of the décor.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Hola, ¿I’m Juanito Cash? Accessing Argentine ATMs Again…

Just over two weeks ago, just before flying south to Buenos Aires, I visited the bank to withdraw US$2000 in large bills—fifties and hundreds. Other things being equal, I’d rather not carry that quantity of cash, but in Argentina it’s an issue of economic convenience, if not necessity. For longer than I care to remember, the manipulation of exchange rates by the country’s previous government required extra-official work-arounds to avoid punishing prices and inflation (which, in fairness, have not ceased under the current government).
What Argentine banks think of you...
The perils of stashing bags of cash aside, changing money here long required seeking informal currency change sites, known as cuevas (“caves”) rather than banks and their ATMs, where one could only obtain the disadvantageous official rate. Cuevas paid the so-called blue dollar rate which, at times, was nearly double that. They did not charge a commission, and did not require waiting in line at a bank or formal exchange house.

There were shorter lines and less bureaucracy at bank ATMs, such as the one at my corner bank in Palermo, but there was still a penalty for using them. Of course, my US home bank would charge a percentage for each transaction and, moreover, the Argentine bank would collect an even larger fee.
My neighborhood cueva was closed over the weekend.
Since arriving here, I’ve usually changed at my neighborhood cueva—there are fewer these days, but they’re still around—where a grumpy old man disappears into the depths of his office and returns with the pesos I need. Friday night, though, in the interest of thoroughness, I chose to use the ATM at the corner. After entering my PIN, I had to choose how much money I would withdraw, and chose “Other” because I wanted more than the A$2000 (about US$114) amount indicated on the display
The bank on the corner is just two doors away from our Palermo apartment.
It was not to be. When I entered the figure of A$3000 (about US$170), the machine rejected it. When I reduced the number to A$2500 (US$143), it did the same. When I capitulated to the original A$2000, it proceeded, but then informed me it would impose a charge of A$106.20 (US$6.08, or 5.31 percent).
Argentina's ATM fees are, arguably, punitive.
In Chile, I regularly withdraw amounts of Ch$200,000 (US$319 at today’s exchange rate), and in Uruguay I’ve withdrawn similar amounts in US dollars (which is not possible at Argentine or Chilean ATMs). There is, of course, a one-time charge for each withdrawal, but as a percentage of the total amount that’s relatively small. In Chile, for instance, the charges range from Ch$4000 to Ch$6000 (roughly two to three percent in the case of the withdrawal above).

In many ways, Argentina is more visitor-friendly than it was recent years, but the banks’ continued insistence on multiple transactions and high commissions is not. Note also that, despite legal requirements, many Argentine businesses (including restaurants) still evade their obligation to accept credit cards in payment for services. They will often accept payment in US cash, but often at a lesser rate.

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