Hi All!

Its been a long and exciting week, and I’m just now finding some time to write. I hope you enjoy the chronicles of Argentina and Paraguay…note: photos will come in a seperate entry tomorrow:)

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’ve dreamed about Argentina ever since I got to the point with my Spanish that I was able to tell the difference between a North and South American accent. Between Mexico and Nicaragua. Peru and Colombia. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s something completely irresistible about Argentine culture. Maybe it’s the vibrating jjjaah’s that litter their speech like little bits of cookie dough in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Maybe it’s the memories I have of listening to the Fabuloso’s “Basta de llamarme asi” while bouncing around in the back of Central American buses. Or maybe it’s the fragrant Malbec wine that I first tasted years ago while in a tucked away in a tiny restaurant in San Francisco’s mission district.

Whatever it is, when I found out that I had to fly through Argentina to arrive in Paraguay for a visit to our field partner, Fundacion Paraguaya, I made sure my layover was as long as possible. The compromise: 9 hours. Just enough time to pop out of the airport, see a little of Buenos Aires, have a meeting, eat some meat (yes even I ate some here!) and drink a little wine before heading back to the airport. 9 hours it was. Or so I thought…

Wednesday

Touching down in Buenos Aires I brush the hair out of my face, do a few stretches and try my best to shake the red-eye haze off after a relatively quick but very delayed flight from Lima. Its 9am and I’ve got an hour and a half to get through customs, taxi over to Bob Hannan, Kiva’s Argentine guru and tireless supporter’s, house, and show up at a meeting at the Beccar Varela offices in downtown Buenos Aires. The meeting has been arranged as a short and sweet gathering of the microfinance players who are interested in learning about Kiva, sharing their experiences with me, and having a bit of an informal “charla” about the government and central bank regulations that plague the sector and strictly regulate outside investment in the country.

A bit on the regulations: Argentina’s near impossible for Kiva to work in. The capital movement restrictions are horrendous—a 30% “encaje” on all oncoming funds, a minimum time period of 1 year for all outside investment, a long and tedious NGO exception application process, and on top of that an upcoming election that stalls any budging in the state-level regulations. Having been in talks with a local law firm whose offices we’re scheduled to meet at today for at least a few months, I’m confident that it will be quite some time before anything will be worked out here. Thus the scheduled meeting is less about business, and more about ideas. What could we do together? How might we be able make this work?

I grab my bag, hop in a taxi, and am whisked through the beautiful streets of Argentina’s Palermo Viejo neighborhood. Cafes line the alleyways, people dressed in fashionable clothes strut along the sidewalks. I gaze out the window of the cab wide-eyed~ sure doesn’t feel like Latin America anymore… Showing up at Bob’s door at least 2 hours late, we jump into another cab and are soon downtown and in a boardroom with folks from Radim (the local microfinance network), Planet Finance, Beccar Varela, some other microfinance gurus, and a visiting intern. I’m greeted warmly and we get into an animated discussion about the regulations, and how Kiva could possibly work here. Step one~ jump through the loops to negotiate an exception to the 30% tax rule because we’re an NGO, Step 2~ find and vet a few reputable institutions to work with, Step 3~ Step up a complicated escrow agreement to manage Kiva funds in country in order to be in compliance with the rules, Step 4~ engage in continual lobbying with the government to lighten the regulations on the movement of foreign funds, which, as far as I can tell, are vestiges of the lingering fears of another crisis such as the one that rippled through Argentina in late 2001. Possible, yes, but not probable in the near future. It’s a bummer really. That the government has to make it so hard for an organization such as Kiva to support those of their citizens that need it most….

We chat for an hour or two, I share a bit about Kiva, and then its off to play tourist. Bob and I have an amazing lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on some pedestrian side street where the 80 year old waitress calls me darling, grabs my hand multiple times, and wont stop bringing us amazing samples pancitos con queso before we even get our wine. I love it here!

I’m then off to the airport and in line for my boarding pass when, to my surprise, I’m told that I have to have a visa and will not be permitted to board my plane to Asuncion. What!?! I almost start crying there on the spot. “No, no, tienes que estar equivocado, no me han dicho nada,” I plead, “nada!” But to no avail. I call the consulate and they’re closed for the day. I fight with the airport staff that can clearly do nothing to help me. So I resign. It’s back to Buenos Aires!

The night, I wish I could write, was full of tango and milanesa and wine with attractive men. But no. So completely exhausted from 2 days without sleep I instead walk the streets a bit and then can do nothing more than crash onto my hotel bed and fall deep asleep. Ah well, next time I’m in Buenos Aires…

The morning and I’m up early. To the consulate. To the bank. To the passport photo office. Back to the consulate. To my hotel. To a great lunch spot. Back to the consulate. And I have it~ my very own Paraguayan visa! So by 4pm I’m on a plane and en route to the mysterious country known for…well, what is Paraguay known for? Sounding like Uruguay? Having a really big river that provides lots of power? Beef? A long dictatorship? Mate? I’m not quite sure, but if you know then respond to this blog with a comment☺

Asuncion, Paraguay

The Asuncion airport is a stark contrast to the flashy Argentine one that I got to know so well in the last few days. Its small, humble, cozy. I’m met by a smiling gentleman holding a sign that reads my name, and am delighted to learn it is Luis Fernando Sanabria, Fundacion Paraguaya’s microfinance director and my primary contact that I’ve come to know via skype and email in the last month of our budding partnership. Luis Fernando grabs by bag, leads me to the car, and gives me the lowdown on the revised agenda for my shortened visit—a dinner at Martin Burt, the director of Fundacion Paraguaya’s, house, a visit to their agricultural school, meetings with a few of the women’s groups, a visit to the central offices, and a mini-tour if time permits. All in 36 hours. Sounds good to me, I chime in, smiling and thinking to myself, I’m glad I took last night to get some rest…

It’s to the hotel and then over to Martin’s house for an introduction to the Kiva Paraguay team. The former mayor of Asuncion and current head of what has to be Paraguay’s most dynamic and exciting NGO to work for, Martin is the kind of person whose stories are so good and energy is so positive that you wish you had a tape recorder to catch everything he says. We’ve met once before, in the brightly lit Grove café on Chestnut Street in San Francisco, but this time I get a much better idea of his character. In his home, with his wife and extended Fundacion Paraguaya family. He greets us with a hug and a glass of wine, and we sit by the fire in his living room as the guests arrive and the smell of dinner cooking dances through the house.

I’m made the guest of honor (weird!) and we share a great dinner, followed by a most delightful session of Latin American guitarra played by the real guest of honor, el troubador Javier. The poetry comes out and we take turns reading our favorites snippets from Neruda, Hernandez, Whitman, Lorca. Mine is a Neruda love sonnet, read in Spanish with the backdrop of melodic guitar. The picture displayed here should paint the scene☺!

A few hours and a many Quilmes beers later, we bid farewell and make plans for my hotel pick-up early in the morning. It’s been a fabulous welcome to this quirky South American country!

To be continued….

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Michelle is responsible for overseeing Kiva's expansion into new impact areas including clean energy, water and sanitation, innovative agriculture and higher education.  As Kiva matures, these areas are increasingly relevant to Kiva's work as we focus on expanding our impact to include environmental sustainability and equal access to opportunity in addition to financial inclusion.  Michelle began her career at Kiva in 2006 on the investments team, spending three years building Kiva's work in North, Central and South America.   After that, she shifted her focus to West Africa and the Middle East, where she spent a few additional years building solid partnerships and an all-star regional team.  In late 2011, she moved into her current role as the Director of Strategic Initiatives.  Prior to joining Kiva, Michelle founded a non-profit organization in Costa Rica, NatureKids, which is focused on English literacy and environmental sustainability in burgeoning tourist hubs.  She also worked at various organizations dedicated to financial inclusion, including ACCION International.  Michelle graduated magna cum laude from Boston University with a degree in International Relations and a minor in Economics.

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