Amidst the confusing economic catastrophe that’s filling porteño airwaves with apocalyptic broadcasts, and, if reports are to be believed, devouring our streets into an American-sponsored financial holocaust, the “dolar blue” has gone into free-fall. Accelerating faster than Usain Bolt on amphetamines, the black market currency exchange has got us all desperately counting our pesos and conducting daily 4th grade arithmetics, all in a desperate attempt to avoid being the latest victim of the decline, or to simply stretch our money as far as possible: capitalism at its most angelic.

But, what really is this sordid-sounding version of what should otherwise be a mundane exchange rate? And is it such a political taboo? What should I do with my increasingly foxy American dollars?

Since I arrived in Buenos Aires, pretty much the only thing that has remained a constant is the increasing devaluation of the Argentine peso. This goes along with skyrocketing of the value of the black market currency exchange of the so-called ” blue dollar” which reached a preposterous rate of 14.2 pesos for one solitary US dollar last week. Every foreigner lucky enough to possess foreign currency is talking about it, as the quest to turn something “officially” worth 8.5 pesos into 14.2 pesos is on. The complicated part is that it’s illegal.

But what is so naughty about the blue dollar? Of course the “black blue market” tag should make that plainly fucking obvious, but I found myself asking why exchanging currency at a better price is illegal to begin with.

I approached the idea like this: if I’m stupid enough to go to someone in USA and offer them $100 for €10, for example, when the official rate says that $100 is worth €76, then surely its my problem. I’ve not done anything illegal, I’m just a little half-baked. Aha, but this is where I’d be wrong.

For those of you who did not throw tens of thousands of (not black) dollars away on a university degree in international economics, international currency transactions are regulated by the central bank of whatever country you happen to be in. In Argentina, buying and selling currency is restricted to licensed corredores de cambio. These entities are permitted to buy and sell currency on the Mercado Único y Libre de Cambios (translation: the one and free currency market) within the Banco Central de Argentina (BCRA).

So if Argentina possesses licensed  corredor de cambios, why does the black market exchange exist? Surely I could just go to a corredor de cambios to exchange 8.5 pesos for a nice shining dollar, and vice versa.

But, alas, wrong again, as the BCRA does not provide sufficient dollars to corredores de cambio via the MULC to provide to everyone who wants to exchange Argentine pesos for US dollars. I suppose the MULC is not so libre, or free as its name implies.

The government does not have enough US dollars to give tourists, savers, importers, or really anyone at the official rate of 8.5 pesos. If they were to start handing out dollars at their “official” rate, they would run out pretty bloody quickly. Chuck in with this a healthy slice of panic-inducing inflation and voilà, enter the dollar blue: a seedy serpent in the Garden of Eden providing solutions to those of us in search of a currency transaction.

So, just to spell it out, people need access to foreign currency and can’t get it through the official channels, so they resort to the “blue” market. This exchange rate is much higher than the official rate and reflects a different economic situation. So in addition to not being libre, it appears the central bank’s MULC is not so unico either.

Unfortunately for the government, the dollar blue is like a big, bright-pink elephant in the room. The government knows it exists, knows everyone uses it, even knows that any Tom, Dick, Juan, or Alejandro can take a nice pleasant stroll down Calle Florida and suckle on the tit of the black market without too much bother from the police. Of course, the government denounces this alternative exchange until they’re “blue” in the face. Typically we see Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich claiming that the rate is backed by media outlets and news agencies paid for by cuevas, and that “those who work in the cuevas lie systematically about the dollar’s value to create unfavorable prospects to encourage a devaluation.”

"Did you just say 14.2?! Shit!" Photo credit: minutouno.com
“Did you just say 14.2?! Shit!”
Photo credit: minutouno.com

The truth is that the “blue” exchange is used with such impunity that to me the government’s denunciations just sound like a lot of hot, harmless air. If you want proof, take Calle Florida. For on this busy little street in the heart of the city there is a buffet of street dealers with their neat little fanny packs, ready to offer any passerby a piece of the dollar blue action. In fact, they are quite persistent, especially if you have extranjero plastered on your forehead, which I most certainly do.

So how does a transplant like me go about accessing this mythical market of Argentine pesos?

To me, using street dealers seems a risky way of completing the transaction. I mean, handing over a wad of cash to a man who’s making absolutely no attempt to conceal his illegal activities just feels a bit dicey, but then I’m probably not the best person to ask, as I still get a bit hot-under-the-cover ordering sushi.

There are also casas de cambio or cuevas on Calle Florida and all over the city that offer the unofficial rate in slightly more “legit” settings, as many completely legit businesses run these money exchange operations on the side. Of course, you may be put off by the police presence on the street, but don’t fret, as 99 days out of 100 they leave the backstreet dealing to their own devices, chatting carelessly to the money dealers as they go.

More proof of the dollar blue’s boundless dominance can be found on nearly every local newspaper’s website or on Dolarblue.net, which publish daily rates and fluctuations.

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Mobile Wechselstube is your answer to effortless, lawbreaking currency exchange. Photo credit: mobilewechselstube.com

For a more flamboyant application of the blue dollar , we can look to Mobile Wechselstube, a company that offers a money delivery service via bicycle. Using this unabashed exchange business couldn’t be easier, as you simply order your money through email or phone at the blue market rate and wait for your courier to arrive to shower you in pesos.

International exchange houses also allow customers to access a rate close to the “street” rate on their websites: Azimo.com for European currencies, and Xoom.com for US dollars. The only difference with them is that you actually have to go and pick the money up yourself. The audacity!

From the outside this must sounds great. It almost sounds like free money. Instead of receiving ARS $850 for your US $100, you’re going to get ARS $1,420. This extra 570 pesos should feel like a gift. And for some, maybe they are.

I watch those around me who get paid in foreign currency, or are spending their foreign currency savings in Argentina, watching the blue-rate fly with a giddy little smile, greedily counting their buckets of extra cash.

In a money-driven world, I suppose this is natural, but what those in such a privileged position should try to remember is that while their vacation spending power may be growing, poor abuelita Perez’s lifelong saving are crumbling all around her, for real.

It’s all well and good to try and make the most out of your own situation, and nobody is begrudging anybody for using the blue dollar, except Jorge Capitanich, of course. I think it is important to keep in mind that the “blue” dollar is one of the ingredients cooking up the financial mess Argentina is in. We should consider the larger ramifications of the spiraling exchange rate on our society and Argentina as a whole before toasting with reduced-price champagne.