Roberto Selbach

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Why do things take so long in Argentina?

Coincidences have a way of catching one’s attention, haven’t they? Yesterday I was riding the bus home with a colleague from work. I was telling him how my life here wasn’t perfect because I couldn’t buy a car. It turns out that I would need to hold a national ID card (called DNI) to purchase a car. Actually, one needs to obtain the DNI to do pretty much anything like opening a bank account. Interestingly enough, you need the DNI for small, simple tasks like ordering cable TV, phone lines, Internet access, etc, but one can easily buy a house – or many houses – without the DNI.

The process of obtaining the DNI is simple. If you’re a citizen, your parents will have used your birth certificate to get your first DNI, which is mandatory from a very early age. Over the years, you are required to update your DNI when you reach certain ages (8, 16, 25, if I’m not mistaken) and everytime you change address. All you need is the original DNI and some address verification and you’re done. If you’re an expat like myself, you need your passport, your resident visa, and some address verification. Again, very simple. You go, apply and wait for the document to be ready. And that’s where the problem resides… in parts of the country, the DNI takes years to be ready. Even in Buenos Aires, it can take more than one year for your DNI to be ready for pick-up.

Now how could such a simple and yet much needed document take so long to be manufactured?

So there I was, talking to this colleague about all of this. He told me that when he had to change his at 16, it took two years. And he’s a national. He told me it’s usually because government workers don’t have the incentive to work harder. He’s probably right, as this is the case everywhere else in the world. Still, this might explain why a simple document can take 2-3 weeks to be created, but not years. When I stepped out of my ride, I bumped into a girl who lives in our building. She told me she was frustrated because she had lost her DNI a couple of years back and the new one wasn’t ready yet. She had just went to the Identification Office to check. Coincidences… I then told her about my story and she told me so other tales of horror and I shared some of my own, like when I needed a document notarized and it took a month to do it. And that was it.

Fast forward a day.

My wife is currently having classes and she asked me to get her a textbook she needs. I went to this bookstore on my way to work. I strolled into the store and worked my way to the textbooks section and quickly found the one my wife needed. I picked it up and headed to the checkout, content that I wouldn’t have to hunt for the book in other stores. I held the book and the cash in my hand. “I’d like to take this” I told the lady at checkout, who in turn looks around and goes “Did you pick a number?”

What. Fucking. Number.

“What number?” I asked, confused. She then pointed me to this little thingamajig near the entrance. “I’m sorry, I don’t get it…” And then she half-mockingly explained to me that I had to pick the number and wait my turn for a salesperson to help me. “But I don’t need any help. I have the book and the money right here!”

No use. I had to pick a number and wait for one of the two saleswomen to call it. So there I was, holding the book I wanted, with the cash to pay for it, standing by the checkout – where the lady was doing nothing by the way – and waiting for someone to “help me.” In any half-civilized place our business would have been over by now. The store would have made money and I would be on my way to work. Simple.

Twenty!!!!!!!” shouted a lady. It was my number. So I went to her – looking pissed, I’m sure. I told her I’d like to please take this textbook. “Oh, certainly!” So she goes to a computer terminal and asks if I’m paying with a credit card. I wave the cash and say “efectivo” to make sure she gets it. Then she asks what the book is for. For reading, duh! I tell her that it’s for a course, then she types something and asks which school. “Lady, sorry but all I want to to take this textbook with me. I have the cash right here. I’ve had both the book and the cash in my hands for like 15 minutes already. All that’s missing is for that lady at checkout to get the money so I can get out of here.” And yes, I was pissed and I didn’t really sounded friendly and half the store was staring at me. She said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but I need to register who purchased the book and where it will be used.”


“Lady, seriously, I don’t want to give any more information. I want to buy this book and that’s it. You either take my money or not. Your choice. Just let me know so I can get out of here.”

The whole store was following our exchange. Everyone surely thinking that I was the mean foreigner who’s going to explore them and steal their water (it’s a local thing.) She told me to go to the checkout I had been to 15 minutes earlier. The lady took my money and asked if I wanted a receipt. D-U-H!

So I realized it has to be a cultural thing. Bureaucracy is so entrenched in their lives that they don’t even realize it anymore. They just think it’s the best way of doing things. The problem I had to get a document notarized is a perfect example. I went to a notary, who then notarized my document. It took two days, which is already ridiculous, but still… the problem is that after he notarizes it, he has to send the document to the Notary Guild Office so that they in turn can verify that the notarizing notary was in fact a certified notary and that the notarization was correctly notarized. I am not even kidding.

Argentina has a lot of great things. Things that I actually love. But in terms of bureaucracy, it’s really, really a mess. And the very people have been “infected” by it so that they are bureaucratic at heart. It’s actually really sad.