Buenos Aires' hotel revolution

Hotel Bauen'Are there any croissants?' a large, middle-aged woman with blonde hair and heavy make-up asks the waiter behind the breakfast counter of the once-exclusive Hotel Bauen in downtown Buenos Aires.

'Well, if there aren't any it's because people don't appreciate them,' the waiter replies, pointing to the messy tables and chairs in the dining room. 'They throw them around, they tear them.'

'Well,' says the woman glancing at her watch, seemingly uninterested, 'I need three croissants.'

'Yes. I have ordered more and they'll arrive soon,' the waiter says. A few moments later he adds: 'I hope.'

Welcome to Hotel Bauen, a hotel that was 'recuperated' from its owners by sacked employees who now run the place under a workers' co-operative.

Once a symbol of the wealth being bandied about during the excess of the 1980s and 1990s, the tired old hotel of today is far removed from anything that spells luxury. But what it has lost in shine, it has more than gained in charm as people from all walks of life — from the remotest parts of the country, of all colors, origins, sizes and economic status — come and go.

In front of its worn façade you are less likely to see a limousine than a run-down bus pelting out black smoke. Guests are more likely to be poor people from rural areas than to be clad in expensive furs. Some will have left their small village for the first time. They are clearly overawed by the big smoke. Others are guests of the hotel while receiving medical treatment at a Buenos Aires hospital.

The story of the hotel begins in the middle of the last military dictatorship (1976–1983) when entrepreneur Marcelo Iurcovich obtained government funding to build the 20-storey hotel in time for the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Apparently, none of the funding — which included US$5million from Argentina's national development bank — was ever paid back. After later obscure business deals the hotel was sold and declared bankrupt on 28 December 2001.

The timing of the closure could not have been worse for the 60 workers who were the remnants of a once 200-strong workforce. They lost their jobs just as the Argentinian economy collapsed, unemployment reached unprecedented levels, Argentina was embroiled in food riots, general strikes and road blockades, banks closed, and people lost their life savings.

After being unemployed for three years, Marcelo Duarte, a former bell boy at the Hotel Bauen and a small band of other former employees took matters into their own hands, broke in and reclaimed the hotel. They were shocked at what they found.

'There was nothing left,' Marcelo said. 'They had taken everything and the place was filthy.'

The process of 'vacuuming' — where the owner of a bankrupt company strips the building of all assets, moves them to a new operation and begins trading again, debt free — was widely practised. The owners of the hotel took the beds, the linen, the televisions, even the floor tiles.

For the next seven months, the workers spent day and night cleaning the hotel. They enlisted the help of other co-operatives to sew curtains and bedspreads, provide tiles, furniture, light fittings and timber frames.

The hotel finally opened for business — illegally — in 2004 and began to secretly rent out some of the 200 rooms, at first to members of other recuperated enterprises and trade unions. It now operates openly, but still not legally, with a staff of 142.

It is one of 186 'recuperated' enterprises throughout the country which have been occupied by workers after the owners shut up shop and dismissed the staff. They employ some 10,000 people.

Like most 'recuperated' enterprises, the ownership of the Hotel Bauen is in limbo. In strict legal terms, the owners may have the legal titles to the property, but the workers have the popular power and, according to many people, the moral right. Some argue the hotel was built not just with government money but with 'dirty' money, stolen from the people by the dictatorship of the time and given to its wealthy supporters.

They see the owners of these recuperated enterprises as conspirators in the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, during which at least 30,000 people, mainly workers and students, were 'disappeared'. 

'Our vision is that there is more to work than money,' Marcelo says. 'Here everyone is a human being first. Each person is responsible and has a level of commitment. We are not employees, but compañeros.'

So next time you stay in Buenos Aires, check out the Hotel Bauen. If you stay there, chances are that only one of the three lifts will operate, and that  it will get stuck half-way between floors. But don't panic. The minute you press the help button, a flurry of people will appear to help you out, each with their own technique of wedging the doors open.

And while the carpets are worn out, the bedspreads washed too many times and the curtains in bad need of replacement, your every wish will be met by the nicest people you are likely to meet. The waiters may complain about people wasting croissants, but they will also pile up your plate and ask if you want seconds.

Monica JacksonMonica Jackson is a Melbourne-based journalist who was born in Argentina.

Topic tags: Monica Jackson, Hotel Bauen, recuperated, co-operative, buenos aires, Marcelo Iurcovich, FIFA World Cup



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Existing comments

I'm booked on a flight to BA in early August for my 3rd visit to that great city and wonderful country. Will definitely pay a visit. Thanks for the advice.

Ken Penaluna | 02 June 2010

Thanks Monica for your tribute to the spirit of those who refuse to be the victims of the social and economic autocracy in Argentina. I experience some of the same spirit of those who are striving to live a new vision of life in Brasil, where the oligarchs still are resisting the Lula-inspired revolution of the poor. It is life-affirming stuff, with all of its warts, like lifts that get stuck on a regular basis!!
Mike | 04 June 2010

Great analysis, I will definitely visit the hotel. Sounds absolutely enchanting. Looking forward to meet such charismatic, interesting and resilient people.
Laura MacDonald | 10 June 2010


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