BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Tomas Ruiz embraced his father one last time at the Buenos Aires airport before he boarded a plane in search of a new life in Ireland. His sister recently did the same when she moved to Spain.
Like many other young Argentines, the siblings hold European passports by descent, and they are returning to the home countries of their grandparents — far from Argentina’s sizzling inflation, high unemployment and sharp currency depreciation.
“My country’s situation prompted me to take this decision,” Ruiz said as he finished packing his bags for his trip to Dublin surrounded by photos of his family and friends on the wall. “It was a constant frustration to live constantly on the edge, barely making it to the end of the month.”
Ruiz studied gastronomy and was employed as a cafe manager in Argentina’s capital. But even when he worked extra shifts, he couldn’t manage to save money, and for months he had been living with his mother to save on rent.
Outside his room, family members left him and his sister farewell messages on a chalkboard. “I love you and I’ll miss you,” his mother wrote. Others said: “The best is yet to come,” and “Carpe diem,” Latin for seize the day.
It’s not the first time Argentines have sought shelter in Europe in times of economic uncertainty. Hundreds of thousands emigrated to the old continent to escape hyperinflation in the early 1990s and an economic meltdown in 2001 and 2002.
Now, Argentines are losing purchasing power to a nearly 50% annual inflation rate — one of the world’s worst. Many have also protests President Mauricio Macri’s decision to cut subsidies, leading to a spike in the costs of utilities and public transportation.
Last year, the Argentine peso lost more than half its value to the U.S. dollar following a run on the local currency, causing the government to seek a record $56 billion bailout loan with the International Monetary Fund to try to come out of the recession.
“As a result of the economic crisis and the devaluation, more young professionals are thinking about a future in Europe,” said Alejandro Servide, director of professionals and recruitment process outsourcing at Argentina’s branch of Randstad, the world’s second-largest staffing company.
As part of the austerity measures aimed at balancing the budget, Macri’s administration has laid off thousands of government workers and slashed funding for dance, science and other programs. Hundreds recently protested outside the headquarters of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, Argentina’s main agency for science and technology.
“The science sector is suffering because these budget cuts ordered by Macri endanger the continuity of scientific activity,” said Alberto Kornblihtt, a molecular biologist. “This is undoubtedly contributing to a brain drain that we’ve suffered at other times (of crisis) in our country.”
There are no official statistics available on how many Argentines have moved to Europe. Argentina’s immigration directorate said it is nearly impossible to keep track of the number because Argentines leaving the country don’t have to provide information on their destination or how long they’ll stay.
But academics, research groups and consulting firms agree there has been a rise in the number of people leaving, especially among young, educated Argentines — just as there was during the nation’s worst crisis 17 years ago.
Back then, millions were plunged into poverty, more than 20 percent of the population became unemployed and many reportedly went hungry in a country that is one world’s biggest producers of beef, soy and wheat.
“When Argentina goes through these profound crises, people search for options, and just like it happened in 2001-2002 when nearly 800,000 Argentines went abroad, today we’re living through perhaps the initial phase,” said Ariel Gonzalez, executive secretary of the Center for International Studies at the Catholic University of Argentina.
“That means that there’s a sector of society — the middle and high class professionals — who are eyeing a Plan B, which is that if the crisis deepens, one of the options would be to go abroad.”
Servide said Randstad Argentina carries out about 160 daily interviews for surveys. One of the questions they ask is whether if given the chance, they would be interested in living abroad. “About 80 percent tell you yes,” he said.
Manuel Miglioranza, a 26-year-old lawyer, is moving next month to Toulouse, France. Although he doesn’t have dual Argentine-French nationality, he’s going to take French lessons and find a job through a temporary work permit allowed through a treaty between the two nations.
“The economic situation in Argentina is not helping. You can’t progress unless you work for the state or you have dollars,” he said. “I know many people who are leaving.”
Millions of Europeans flooded into Argentina in the 19th century to escape war and poverty back home, which has been a source of pride for the country.
“Argentina gave peace to those who were escaping war, freedom to those escaping religious persecution, and bread and work to those escaping hunger,” said Horacio Garcia, director of Argentina’s National Migration Directorate.
“Of the last six presidents, four of them were first-generation sons of immigrants,” Garcia noted. “Their fathers came to Argentina with a cardboard suitcase, and they saw that their children in a short amount of time became presidents of the nation. That hardly happens anywhere else in the world.”
By the 20th century, a strong workforce along with export earnings from agricultural products and beef had helped turn Argentina into one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Argentines were also among “the most Europeanized and educated people in Latin America,” Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo write in their anthology “The Argentina Reader: History, Culture and Politics.”
“Their literacy rate (about 90 percent) was the highest by far. Until 1945, the country boasted the highest per capita income on the continent, the most extensive urbanization, the largest middle class, as well as the best newspapers, universities, and publishing houses.”
But political mismanagement and lower prices for agricultural products that form the country’s economic backbone have for decades led to cyclical booms and busts.
The Spanish government recently launched an initiative that allows a limited number of descendants of Spaniards living in Argentina without a Spanish passport to seek a special three-month work visa. Once they find a job, they can request Spanish nationality and bring their families. There were 76,328 Argentines officially registered by mid-2018 in Spain.
“There are many, many Argentines living here. We’re like pigeons — everywhere,” quipped Paz Pucheu, an Argentine now living in Spain.
The 25-year-old radio and television announcer went to Barcelona in 2017 when “things got really complicated” in Argentina. She began working at a restaurant and eventually landed a job at a local radio station.
“Like other Latin American countries, Argentina was a Spanish colony. With friends now we joke around that we’re colonizing our colonizers,” she said.
Associated Press journalists Paul Byrne and Demian Bio in Buenos Aires, Aritz Parra in Madrid and Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.