Argentine currency controls have ripple effect
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Maxi Gonzalez and his family settled into a dinner of sirloin strip steaks and salads at the Maya Tapas and Grill along Miami Beach's famed Lincoln Road. It was the first night of their weeklong vacation from Argentina, and at a restaurant they planned to frequent nearly every day. The reason: Here they could pay in Argentine pesos.
Currency controls imposed by the Argentine government in November 2011 and tightened further last year have made it increasingly difficult for tourists like Gonzalez to gain access to foreign cash needed to travel. The measures are aimed at shoring up a weakening Argentine currency and keep capital from leaving the South American country.
Gonzalez was only able to convert the equivalent of $2,000 from Argentine pesos into U.S. dollars.
"That's not nearly enough for a large family like mine," said Gonzalez, a commercial textile entrepreneur with six children.
In the city some affectionately refer to as the capital of Latin America, the measures designed to keep dollars in Argentina and elevate the Argentine peso's sliding value are having a ripple effect.
Seeing a way to help some customers and attract others, Alejandro Maya, co-owner of Maya Tapas and Grill, decided to conduct an experiment: Accept payment in pesos at the official exchange rate.
"We saw a niche, a need, and we thought that the customers could benefit from this action," said Maya, whose restaurant caters to tourists from around Latin America and the world.
It's an unusual step, but Maya's family-run business is not the only one to have taken it. Some apartment rentals in Miami Beach are accepting pesos now as well. That's much to the relief of Argentine travelers like Gonzalez, who runs a farm near Buenos Aires and was recently in Miami with his wife and two daughters.
"It's not difficult; it's impossible," Gustavo Gonzalez, 49, said of his efforts to buy dollars in Argentina.
The city is a popular destination for both middle class Latin Americans and the rich and famous. Some 375,000 Argentinians visited Miami in 2011, making them the fifth largest group of international visitors. They visit the beaches, clubs and restaurants, and even "Little Buenos Aires" along a strip of Miami Beach filled with Argentinian eateries and businesses that cater to the community.
But now this world is becoming harder to reach for many Argentines.
Maria Isabel Seufferheld works at a travel agency in Mendoza, Argentina, and says she's seen more clients opting to stay within the country during their vacations. When they do travel abroad, they spend fewer days away.
Seufferheld herself recently visited her son in Miami and tried to covert $800 into U.S. dollars for the trip. She was only approved for $100 for her 15-day stay.
"I'm only using credit cards," she said.
Under the currency controls, Argentines who are up to date on their taxes can buy no more than $100 per person for each day abroad. Two months ago, the government began cracking down on credit and debit card purchases as well, charging a 15 percent tax on all foreign purchases and a 50 percent customs duty on any goods brought back.
Argentine tax chief Ricardo Echegaray has described the measures as a way to catch scofflaws and make it less attractive for Argentines to spend money abroad. They're also meant to stem capital flight, which reached $23 billion in 2011, and keep enough money in Argentina's central bank reserves to pay off the country's debt.
The effect of currency controls has spilled into other areas, too. Eduardo Bleiberg, vice president of Weichert Realtors Best Beach Real Estate, said there has been a slight decline in the number of Argentinians purchasing property in the U.S.
"Banks are putting a lot of restrictions on lending to Argentinians," he noted.
The controls have worked to an extent: Argentina's central bank claimed $45 billion in dollar reserves last year but the value of the peso continues to slide, losing nearly 8 percent of its worth against the dollar in 2012.
Argentines unable to convert pesos into dollars through official channel frequently turn to the black market, where the exchange rate is considerably higher.
Maya, who is originally from the Argentine city of Mar de Plata, said he first got the idea to accept pesos after reading about restaurants and hotels in Uruguay that planned to do the same.
"I said, `Why not do it here?'" Maya recalled.
The Mayas advertised the offer online and at the restaurant with a poster reading, "Eat in Miami, pay in pesos!" Several Argentine bank notes and the official exchange rate are pictured in the background.
"Some customers are trying to figure out where is the catch," Maya said. "And there really is no trick. It's the same menu, the same food, the same everything."
The decision has been mildly profitable: The Maya restaurant has brought in nearly $10,000 in pesos in the first month. Maya deposits the money in an Argentine bank account and then uses a debit card to extract the money to buy food and supplies. Though some money is lost in the process, he says some earnings amount to extra business and he doesn't plan to stop accepting pesos until currency controls are eased.
"We'll do it as long as it lasts," he said.
Gustavo Gonzalez said he and his family had just enough money for their 10-day vacation, dividing up their purchases between credit cards and the dollars they were able to obtain. He said they'd likely spend less overall and visit the Maya restaurant several times so they could pay in pesos.
"It comes out a lot cheaper for us," he said. "We're paying the same we would in Argentina."
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario.
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