It is winter time in Argentina. In the course of my three-day visit for an HSM conference, I will discover this is physically and figuratively true. The young woman charged by the conference organizer to shepherd me through the event has the sadness of Argentina in her eyes. She’s sharp as a tack, is curious about everything she can learn from me, and knows her job prospects are bleak. She wants to know all about the US and whether she would still be living at home if she were going to a US college. She dreams of green campuses and independence.
Argentina is like its soccer teams, brilliant and ultimately self-destructive. At every international soccer event, Argentina is one of the favorites, expected to combine creative play and game toughness to challenge the best. Year after year, they disappoint. This week, the news is dominated by the relegation of River Plate, one of the two leading club teams of Buenos Aires, who will have to play in a second-division league for the first time in its 110-year history, creating talks of bankruptcy for the club. For good measure, giant riots erupted after their last match around the Monumental stadium where they play, and more than 70 people were hurt.
I am coached not to mention River Plate’s fate on any of my speeches. Emotions are still raw. On the way to the airport last night, I catch from the road a glimpse of the Argentine national team starting its training for the Copa America tournament. Maybe this time…
At the conference itself, as well as during journalist interviews and company visits, there is strong interest in co-creation. Argentines love the notion that business is about people – there is an instinctive humanity you can feel anywhere in Argentina – and they know for not being very good at it that business is about building ecosystems. For a fleeting moment, it feels like hope.
In the evening, though, gloominess returns during a dinner I am attending with some business executives of Buenos Aires. The conversation starts with agriculture, where exorbitant export duties and the vagary of the government’s granting of export licenses are challenging a highly competitive intrinsic global position. In the oil sector, YPF, a very competent exploration and production and refining company, has been a political football for many years, moving from independence to being acquired by the Spanish company Repsol, to being sold again in a complex government scheme. There seems to be little love between the business community and the current government. Inflation has returned with a vengeance, with economists estimating it at 25-30% (the number is highly contested), but this does not seem to worry the government of Cristina Kirchner, widow of the previous President. Everywhere you turn, there is little hope for growth.
The remarkable thing about Argentines is that while few of their institutions work, they remain a nation of remarkable talent, giving their society a soulful dimension which touches your heart. Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers novel comes to mind. “Don’t worry about us, we’ll be all right,” one of the executives tells me, probably reacting to my empathetic look. “We’re used to this. We’ve learned to cope.” A minute later, though, he starts dreaming of Argentina adopting the Brazilian growth model.
“It would be fun to start growing like them,” he says. “But beating them in the final of the Copa America in a few weeks would be even better.”