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How Americans Cheat the Argentinean Economy

As the Argentinean government tries to limit the number of American dollars in circulation, a black market has taken the place of the official exchange.


I had vaguely fantastical notions of being robbed, but really, I just wanted to pay what equated to a dollar for a liter of beer. My friend had told me about the system. Once, a burly dude escorted him up a dark flight of stairs and into a dimly lit room with an official money-changing tray and a thick glass barrier. Other times he had been led into a basement or even did it right out in the open.

With all of this in mind, I walked through the street doing my best to look as touristy as possible without tipping my trepidation and excitement. The street was filled with arbolitos and my initial anxiety of not finding a partner was placated quickly. The man at the magazine stand altered his sales pitch when he saw me approach. I heard the “Cambio! Cambio! Cambio!” I was looking for and shot back a hopefully nonchalant come-hither look. We went inside his stand and counted out our respective amounts to trade. I checked the authenticity of the bills, shook his hand, and was on my way in under a minute. The rate of the day was 8.4 pesos/dollar, a cool 3.3 pesos higher than Argentina’s official rate.

The black market exchanges are remora on the side of a shark, thriving off of missed food particles or apathetic regulations.

ARGENTINA'S RECENT ECONOMIC POLICY has circled the wagons around strengthening the peso as a form of domestic and global currency. In order to promote the fiat money, the government has cracked down on the amount of dollars the Central Bank of Argentina lends out. This theoretically leads to wider circulation of the peso and a stable, happy national economy. Unfortunately, the country has a turbulent financial history speckled with inflation crises, and there is rampant distrust of the government’s monetary policies. Since it’s impossible to stock up on dollars through legitimate pathways, Argentines have turned to black market methods of getting ahold of American dollars, viewed as a far stabler currency than pesos. They buy these from dealers called arbolitos, literally “little trees,” who themselves buy dollars from American tourists. The unofficial exchange system is known as la nota azul, “the blue dollar.”

Everything, especially international travel, is expensive on a college student’s budget. After a summer of field work in Argentina, I had a week in Buenos Aires before I flew home. Without much to spend, I looked to la nota azul. And, after that quick stop in the magazine stand, I netted the equivalent of an extra $41 per $100 changed compared to what the government would’ve given me.

Was I cheating? Yes, definitely. The government-mandated quota on dollars was enacted to strengthen the national economy, which I had actively undermined by getting my dollars out into circulation. There’s something to be said for respecting the laws of a country that lets you within its borders. But if cheating nominally leaves someone cheated, exactly who, in this case, is less than clear.

While my Argentine friends recognized that la nota azul subverted the authority and goals of the government, they expressed doubts over the government’s ability to manage the national economy effectively. Argentina is a big and complex country, and part of one summer doesn’t allow me to speak with nuance on its size or complexity. But in short, the government is looked at with paranoid eyes. In this light, the black market exchanges are remora on the side of a shark, thriving off of missed food particles or apathetic regulations. While la nota azul ignores governmental edict, it gives the people what they want. The nota azul rate is often a rough indicator of trust in government policy, and this week it spiked past the “psychological threshold of 10 pesos/dollar,” prompting raids ahead of next week’s election.

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The nota azul wouldn’t be such a thriving system if it wasn’t advantageous to both parties. Arbolitas make a marginal profit as intermediary between Americans and Argentines looking to swap currencies. Argentine citizens looking to buy dollars hurdle over red tape and are somewhat shielded from the ersatz swings of the peso’s value. American tourists get to buy an extra yerba mate gourd or, for me, not feel guilty about buying some counterfeit soccer gear (which is its own kind of institutionalized cheating). Yet, while I didn’t personally bankrupt anyone, my money is part of a larger torrent of unregulated cash that threatens the legitimate peso’s stability. Being a small part of a negative thing doesn’t absolve me, but it doesn’t indict me, either. The distinctions between good and bad are messy in this case.

The government’s efforts to strengthen the peso are chipped away at, but my money goes quickly to everyday people and not into the inertia-swamp of government finance. I cheated each of Argentina’s 41,000,000 people out of one fifty-thousandth of a cent but bolstered the reserves of a few involved in the trading business. The costs may outweigh the benefits, but it’s all so small scale that it doesn’t equate to anything really even happening. Trading money and exploiting an unofficial exchange rate felt vaguely imperialist. That’s morally problematic, but is it any more so than denying Argentines a way around what they see as a backward economic policy? It’s not up to me to decide what’s best for Argentina, anyway, but la nota azul isn’t a binary. Cheating almost never is.