Incredibly, this is the Buenos Aires home of their water department. Built in 1894, it contains offices, some large water tanks, and a toilet museum. The country that commissioned this palace to house their water utility over a century ago today can’t deliver or track the delivery of even a hearing aid, the bureaucratic quagmire is so dense.

 

On a recent Friday, Puerto Limon Hostel where I reside in Buenos Aires got a phone call asking if I was a resident there. They asked for my passport number and said they had received a small package addressed to me from the U.S. The package contained a replacement hearing aid from the Audibel hearing aid organization in Florida. As part of my warranty on their product, they had agreed to replace the hearing aid I had lost, and put on the bill of lading a value of $2 because zero was not acceptable. The following Monday, a Fed Ex driver stopped by the Hostel, not to deliver the package, but to drop off two pages of confusing instructions, in Spanish, about how to pay customs charges of U.S. $121 and an additional AR $250 for my free package. I had heard horror stories about package delivery in Argentina, but being the eternal optimist, I was ready to find out for myself. I do not visit a country to become its critic, and after five months of residence here, I loved Buenos Aires and learned more every day. I even entertained notions of using this experience to deepen my understanding of how customs worked, and how the values were determined.

So I set about with one of the receptionists here, who tried to translate the written instructions. Eventually she gave up and called the local Fed Ex office. They explained what I would owe, which I thought was ridiculous. After all, a comparable hearing aid was simply not available in Argentina, and why would they punish a handicapped person (not being able to hear IS a handicap) by making a replacement as difficult and as expensive as possible? It’s not as if they could repair or replace it from an Argentine provider. The following is what happened next to me and Erika, my assistant and interpreter, who was helping me on her precious day off work:

  • The Fed Ex office instructs us to proceed to a specific Customs Office (A) to fill out forms. Once we had those completed forms in hand, I would go to the Airport to pick up my hearing aid package. The round trip taxi expense would be US $70. The alternative was to take the bus, which was six hours. Delivery to your location is out of the question. The only thing that can be hand delivered to your location is written instructions why you have to travel to the airport and what you have to pay.
  • When we got to Customs (A) we were told they were not the correct office, and we should go to Office B, about ten blocks away.
  • Office B was quite large. It had a seating area for about 200 people. There were 23 windows at which one could presumably conduct business. Only window 23 was staffed, by an aging, white-haired man who looked like he was about to expire of boredom. There was no one else in this entire office except the greeter, who had disappeared. Cheered by our presence, our bureaucrat  asked for my ID, then produced two forms, and he carefully hand stamped each one of them with four different rubber stamps. He did this very slowly, methodically, with a precision and dignity worthy of the Magna Carta, and then asked me to print my name and email on each of them, as well as sign them. He then directed us to a computer at a nearby table and told us what website to go to and enter my ID number. It would not accept my ID number, after numerous tries. Erika asks the greeter, who had returned to his barren post what to do and he said the system was malfunctioning. He had no other suggestions. Apparently they directed everyone to the computer that wasn’t functioning, and then patiently waited for them to announce that it wasn’t working.
  • We went down the street, located an Internet cafe and accessed the Customs website there, and tried to enter my package number. The website would not accept my package number. We called Fed Ex and were instructed to go to the airport ($70) to get the number. We called a Customs phone number to find out if this is true, do we really have to go to the airport just to get the package number so we could fill out this form, and were told they couldn’t help us unless we were a company. We hung up and called Customs again, got another employee who told us, “to be perfectly honest, you aren’t going to get your package, you are wasting your time.” We then called a company that specializes in representing people with Customs issues, and when we told him our story, he said “I’ll be glad to take your money, beginning with AR $5,000 but you aren’t ever going to get your package.”
  • We call Fed Ex back, and tell them our story and that we decided to return it to the sender as undeliverable. She says, that’s wise, there’s no way you could get your package. We had two questions we chose not to ask: Why didn’t you tell us that in the first place? And, how do you people make any money if you can’t deliver your packages? I had a third question, which it also wasn’t worth asking: If you could drive all the way to my hostel to deliver two pieces of paper, why not bring the hearing aid with you on the same trip?
  • Fed Ex was very cheerful about returning our package, and put us on hold while they did the paperwork. They proudly announced my hearing aid would be back in Florida in about ten days.
  • The question everyone wants to know the answer to is, could you have gotten this done with a bribe? The sad truth is, we never met anyone who knew enough for a bribe to produce any kind of tangible benefit. Everyone was nice. No one had a clue.

The mind-numbing Kafkaesque incompetence and disorganization and dull but cheerful acceptance of the status quo could have been very frustrating, but Erika and I decided we were on the movie set of a science fiction story about a planet inhabited only by zombies and made a game out of the day, and then stopped for something Argentina does occasionally get right: a steak and beer.

Argentina has achieved the final end result of decades of bad ideas and misguided public policy: total loss of faith in her institutions, universities overflowing with passionate Argentine rhetoric about social theories, ubiquitous framed photos of Che Guevara, but a desperate lack of knowledge about how to get anything done. This debacle took decades to develop, and it will take time to fix. The question is whether Argentines have the will to deny themselves in the present long enough to restore sanity and stability. A month ago I took a walking tour conducted by an Argentine firebrand with half an understanding of basic economics, whose major concern was that entrance to football games was no longer going to be free. Bread and circuses. Quick and painless fixes. Merchants and industries that don’t invest in their tomorrows because their tomorrows are very much in doubt.

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