Argentines feeling trapped by currency controls

Associated Press Modified: September 4, 2012 at 12:46 pm •  Published: September 4, 2012
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentines are increasingly feeling trapped inside their country as the government restricts access to the foreign cash they need to travel.

Legally trading pesos for dollars or euros has become ever more difficult as President Cristina Fernandez tries to keep dollars inside the country and bolster the Argentine peso's sliding value. And new rules taking effect this week are squeezing them still further by going after credit card spending.

Until now, travel has offered a limited exception to the currency controls first imposed last November: People up to date on their taxes and poised to cross a border, tickets in hand, can get permission to buy no more than $100 per person for each day abroad. The process is bureaucratic and intrusive, and many say their requests are rejected for reasons they don't understand.

Credit and debit cards provided a legal way out, enabling people to make purchases and get money while abroad. But now the government is cracking down there as well.

The new measures make using plastic inside or outside the country less affordable by charging 15 percent in taxes on all foreign purchases that appear on credit or debit card bills, plus a 50-percent customs duty on any goods from abroad that might be brought back to Argentina. Internet purchases on sites such as Amazon, eBay and the Apple Store are included, along with anything bought using online services such as PayPal.

Consumers will pay the tax along with their monthly card bills. And for the first time, the government will be able to scrutinize each cardholder's entire bill, tracking their spending to capture anything unreported on customs and tax declarations. Argentines are taxed on wealth as well as income, so this gives tax agents powerful new tools to collect a piece of everything they own.

Tax chief Ricardo Echegaray described twin objectives: catching scofflaws and making it less attractive for Argentines to spend abroad.

"Let there be no doubt that we prefer that everyone stay and spend their summers in Argentina," Echegaray said last week.

He later clarified that people who fully pay their taxes "can take vacations, buy things and do things anywhere in the world they wish to."

But travelers are learning that their pesos are no good outside Argentina, and saving them at home isn't an option either, with inflation running at 25 percent or more a year.

Before traveling in June to southern Argentina and Chile, information technology executive Natividad Pozzo and her husband submitted sworn declarations to the tax agency and were granted permission to buy $570, which they exchanged for Chilean currency across the border. Then their cash ran out and they discovered peso-denominated bank cards don't work in ATM machines outside Argentina. They only made it back across the border by persuading someone they met to buy some pesos.

A month later, she tried to legally buy Uruguayan currency for another trip, but was rejected. As before, she filled out a form detailing the tax information of everyone she would be traveling with, their relationship to her, the addresses where she will stay and the purpose and length of her trip. But the system said she can only buy currencies once every six months.

"Am I no longer free to travel?" wrote Pozzo in an angry open letter to the president that she posted on social networks. "Are you forcing me to go to the black market to buy foreign currencies?"

Antoinette Ford, an American-Irish travel writer, tried to exchange Argentine currency at airports in Argentina, Miami, Washington, Dallas and London during a recent trip.

"Nobody would take the pesos," she complained. "Even the Argentines don't want the pesos. That's why they keep trying to get dollars."

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