Argentina, until recently a country whose third largest national minority were Poles, is struggling not only with a crisis caused by the pandemic, but also with the already present economic crisis. In order to save the country, the Argentinean authorities are introducing a number of regulations aimed at mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic not only on their citizens’ health, but also on the economy. In an interview by The Warsaw Institute Review, we speak with H.E. Aleksandra Piątkowska, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland to the Argentine Republic, the Eastern Republic of Uruguay and the Republic of Paraguay.
Jarosław Walkowicz, The Warsaw Institute Review:
Ms Ambassador, what is the current state of relations between Poland and Argentina?
H.E. Aleksandra Piątkowska: Our relations are at a very good level, which is extremely important. Argentina is a country with which Poland has agreed many times in various international forums, where we work together quite closely. We have very good relations with Argentina, both political and economic, although definitely not as developed as they could be.
In 2022 we will celebrate the centenary of Polish – Argentinean relations, which seems to be a great impulse to strengthen our mutual relations. I am thinking of a high-level visit, which we have not had for a very long time, as it has been over 20 years. What is more, we were already planning such a visit, but unfortunately, the current pandemic situation stopped us – this is probably to be made up for next year.
I hope that the economic relations will also be developed in the future, during the mentioned visit as well. There is plenty of scope for improvement and expansion, as both Poland and Argentina have the potential to intensify this cooperation: both countries have about 40 million inhabitants, Argentina has fantastic agriculture and Poland has an efficiently developing industry. The current trade exchange is about one million dollars a year, with little export on our side.
What is the situation of the Polish community in Argentina, is it still a strong and large community that some of us know from Tony Halik’s novels and stories told by our grandparents?
Estimates show that there are between 370 thousand and half a million of Poles living in Argentina. However, these are mainly people of Polish origin, i.e. the children and grandchildren of those people who emigrated to Argentina either at the beginning of the 20th century or after World War II. These are people who are already Argentineans and in most cases do not speak Polish. However – and this is noteworthy – as an Embassy, we have been noticing for some time the trend of returning to our roots and the desire to learn our language.
One of the strong assets of the Polish Embassy in Argentina is the Polish community that supports our activities, which, like many other Polish communities scattered around the world, is united in a number of different organisations. The largest one is the Union of Poles in Argentina, which joins forty smaller organisations. One of the tasks of our Embassy is also to support and cooperate with these organisations, promoting Polish culture, e.g. during the Polish Settlers’ Day.
Let us inform our readers that the Polish Settlers’ Day was established by Argentine as a state holiday.
Exactly. Since 1995, on 8 June, every year, we commemorate the arrival of the first Polish emigrants to Argentina in 1897. Events such as concerts, parades and tastings of Polish cuisine organised by people from Polish organisations are held throughout the week. They dress in regional costumes, sing, dance and prepare Polish food. This is, in fact, well received by the Argentineans, who enjoy it a lot. The Argentineans, who are largely composed of descendants of emigrants, appreciate the contribution of the Polish community to the process of shaping their country – after the Spanish and Italian emigrants, the Poles were the third largest national minority in the country.
Let us move on to seemingly the most prevalent topic in the world today, namely the coronavirus. What was its origin in Argentina? From our understanding, patient zero appeared at the beginning of March – similarly as in Poland.
Patient zero was diagnosed with the coronavirus on 3 March. This time is also the end of holidays in Argentina, during which many Argentineans travel to Italy and Spain because of their roots. Many people also travelled to the United States, Brazil or Mexico. The first infected person brought the virus from outside.
The authorities introduced compulsory isolation of those who came from abroad and were in contact with those that had been infected, as this was the only way to protect Argentina from a rapid overwhelming of health care services and a dramatic increase in the number of deaths, as was tragically the case in Italy. We were receiving information from Poles coming to Argentina who had to undergo 14 days of quarantine, which was also checked by the police. Around 13 March, President Fernandez decided that it was necessary to suspend all flights from the so-called red zones, i.e. from China, Germany, France, Italy, Korea and the USA.
Observing the severity in parts of the world which were the most affected by the virus, the Argentinean authorities decided on 20 March that it was necessary to introduce complete isolation of the society, which was to last at least until the end of April. It seems to me that even greater restrictions than in Poland have been introduced – among others, there is a ban on moving between regions of the country. As residents, we can only go out to the nearest grocery store or pharmacy, which is also checked by the police. When taking a dog for a walk, you can only go 100 meters away from your place of residence. Many passers-by are asked by the police from where and to where they are going and some police officers even look in the bags to check if the passers-by are telling the truth. All schools, kindergartens, parks, theatres or restaurants are closed and absolutely no meetings or mass events take place.
What other actions of the authorities have contributed to the surprisingly favourable statistics of Argentina compared to other countries in the region?
That is right, the figures are remarkably favourable in relation to many other places. Today there are a total of 3,892 infected people and 192 deaths. So far, 1,107 people have recovered.
The authorities were aware that the city of Buenos Aires and the areas surrounding the city are the most vulnerable. These are more than 3 million people in the city alone, plus about 12 – 13 million people living in the suburbs. There was a high risk that people coming to the capital to work would infect everyone in the city, so entry into the city was limited. Only a few the most important highway exits, bridges and junctions were left open. There, the police are checking everyone, because everyone who drives a car has to have a reason to come to the capital. So either he or she is a doctor, or he or she practises another profession that is needed during a pandemic, such as municipal services. Individuals operating in these professions actually can enter the city, but every company must issue a certificate to the employee that he or she works there, and additionally, everyone must register on the government website and provide the car registration number to enter. All these rigorous regulations are really impressive.
I think the government’s dilemma will be the date of lifting the full isolation of society. Workshops and banks have been allowed to operate since 14 April, and on 15 April, the obligation to wear masks in closed public spaces such as shops, banks and public transport was introduced.
What other elements impact the slow spread of the virus in Argentina?
One of the factors is the huge territory and the relatively low population density. In Argentina, there are regions located far from large human settlements, where there is also a lack of population movement. As a result, in some of them officially there are only a few infections. Moreover, internal air traffic has also been stopped.
Another reason for the low fatility rate in Argentina is the very low rate of tests per million inhabitants, amounting to slightly more than 1,100 examined people. For comparison, in Poland, there are almost 7,679, and in Argentina’s neighbours – Uruguay and Chile – 4,912 and 8,159, respectively.
What did the organisation of the “Flight home” campaign look like?
It was one of the most demanding tasks we have had for a while, but my whole team did very well. The action ended on 1 April, on the day of the plane’s departure. Unfortunately, only our compatriots staying in Buenos Aires and its vicinity could fly back home. As I have already mentioned, on 20 March, a ban on moving around the country was introduced, which made it impossible for people staying in other regions to come to the airport. To avoid problems, we apply for and receive special residence permits from the Argentinean Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Poles whose visas are to expire.
Has Argentina carried out a similar action to bring its citizens to the country?
Yes, about 150 thousand Argentineans returned to the country. Unfortunately, this happened before the introduction of the current restrictions and the appropriate precautions were not taken so these people travelled around the country to their homes. Between 30 and 40 thousand desperate Argentineans remained abroad. Desperate, because we are not only talking about tourists, but also people who worked in Spain, Brazil or Mexico, and who in many cases suddenly became unemployed and left without a livelihood due to the pandemic. The authorities are trying to help all their citizens return to the country, but this is a very difficult operation. Unfortunately, many other countries are also struggling with this problem.
Let us talk about the economic aspect. How did the coronavirus affect the Argentinean economy? At the end of last year, the situation in the markets in Argentina was not very optimistic.
In short, the country has now stopped. However, the necessary economic sectors were allowed to operate, such as agriculture in the less inhabited regions which is the pillar of the Argentine’s economy, or mining. Of course, President Fernandez has set himself the task of keeping as many citizens as possible away from infection, at the same time, ensuring the same level of supplies. And probably the beginnings were not the best because, just like in Poland, people started making supplies, but now all products in shops are available because the supply chains have been preserved.
What do you think the Argentinean economy will look like after the pandemic?
I am afraid that this time may be one of the most difficult periods in Argentinean history. The authorities, aware of the fact that many thousands of people, especially those who are self-employed, have no income at the moment, have decided to provide one-off financial assistance. The individual regions also received similar assistance. Unfortunately, the aid was not very large, which is related to another issue.
Namely, at the end of 2019, the outgoing President Mauricio Macri left Fernandez with a very indebted economy. It suffices to say that Argentina had negative GDP growth four times since 2012. One of the first decisions of the new president was to renegotiate the debt, which was very problematic for Argentina. Moreover, Fernandez made a unilateral decision to suspend debt and interest payments to domestic creditors in order to be able to pay at least part of the foreign debt. The second issue was the galloping inflation, which reached 40% even before the coronavirus crisis. The current situation is definitely not favourable to the struggle for a better economy, to the extent that the rating agency Fitch has downgraded Argentina’s investment risk rating in recent weeks to grade C – the second lowest rating on a ten-degree scale.
What about Argentina’s relationship with China? Is there a similar situation to that in Europe, where China is trying to improve its image by sending, or actually selling often uncertified quality equipment, among others, to the Netherlands and recently to Poland?
For many years now, China has been one of Argentina’s largest economic partners and the two states have a number of trade agreements that deepen this cooperation. It seems that this rapprochement has long been a concern to the United States, for which Argentina is an important ally in the region, which was particularly important during Macri’s presidency. However, this did not prevent the then-president from taking loans from the Chinese government, against which President Donald Trump had already warned at the time, calling these actions of Beijing “debt-trap diplomacy”.
Since Alberto Fernandez, from the centre-left Justicialist Party, has been serving as the president, Argentina has better relations with socialist countries like China. The issue of Venezuela is also interesting where the democratically elected President Guaido was previously supported. Currently, in Argentina, it is believed that the ongoing dispute in Venezuela is an internal issue of this country. Moreover, Argentina is one of the few countries to support the Venezuelan parliament – the National Assembly.
In any case, China is sending Argentina a large number of medical supplies to support the country in the fight against the coronavirus. At the beginning of April, it was about 50,000 tests, 10 ventilators, 2,000 protective goggles, 20,000 disposable gloves, 10,000 disposable protective suits, 200,000 masks and 550 digital thermometers. The situation is similar in other Latin American countries, such as Venezuela and Chile. This is certainly not in the interest of the United States, which is currently facing a major crisis and is finding it very difficult to offer help to its allies.
An interview by Jarosław Walkowicz – The Warsaw Institute Review
Aleksandra Piątkowska – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, previously Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to the Republic of Chile. She has been in the Polish MFA since 1993. From the beginning of her career, she served as, among others, a member of the Polish delegation to the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 1994 and 1995, a member of the Polish delegation to the CSCE/OSCE Summit. She has also held positions in the departments of Information System, Public Diplomacy and Development Cooperation, as well as in bilateral mixed committees.