Argentina’s Worker-Run Hotel Bauen (8/12/05)

While the Argentine economy may still be recovering from its 2001-2002 crisis, life at Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires has only been heating up. After more than two years of being taken over by the hotel employees, the legendary Hotel Bauen has had somewhat of a rebirth.

Built in the years running up to the 1978 World Cup match held in Buenos Aires, disputed owner Iurkovich easily secured many soft credit loans from the then military dictatorship government to construct the hotel with the anticipated arrival of thousands of tourists for the world´s most popular soccer match. Using the profits from Bauen, he eventually built two more hotels, one around the corner from the Hotel Bauen named The Bauen Suites and another in Bussios, Brazil. However, as Argentina slowly destabilized during the Dirty War (when tens of thousands of suspected "leftist dissidents" were kidnapped and killed by the dictatorship) and later during the belt tightening economics of the Menem administration, the tourism industry began to waver, leaving the once elegant Hotel Bauen in a sad state of disrepair. Facing his large unpaid debt to the Argentine government, Iurkovich sold the hotel to a Chilean businessman in 1997. As the situation steadily worsened, the Chilean´s investment went bust as he closed down the Hotel Bauen in 1999, leaving the numerous employees jobless and in the streets. Yet, he too never paid the debt, and due Iurkovich´s earlier trail of shady paper work, responsibility for the loans revolved back to Iurkovich. 

Receptionist Luisa Casanova worked at Hotel Bauen during the Iurkovich era from 1992-94 and remembers "feelings of unease" due to the work environment. She later left to work at Bell South for eight years, but returned to Bauen after the 2001 economic collapse, as her own economic situation, as well as the country´s, began to unravel.

When she began working at Bauen the second time around, the workers had already "taken" the hotel. They then began the difficult process of reopening its doors: repairing all the broken and wrecked living areas, dysfunctional bathrooms, and reviving the ungodly 70´s interior design before finally accommodating guests.

Now, a worker-run cooperative, Casanova feels that working "conditions are much better." She added with a beaming smile, "There are higher wages and the work doesn’t feel worthless."

Profits have risen, too.

Since the worker takeover, Hotel Bauen has seen its business soar. The lobby now bustles with patrons from all over the world. To the right of the entrance, there is a display where they sell hip "exploitation free" shoes manufactured in a recently recovered Argentine footwear factory. The sweet rhythms of the nightly house band float up a staircase leading to the downstairs bar. Also, up to 400 people line up outside each weeknight to catch the politically tinged comedy and piano routine of radio personality Alejandro Dolina.

The new popularity stems from a better run hotel, but also from giving the hotel a newer purpose.

"It is more than just a hotel" explained Casanova. "Political groups and unions meet here during the week; people from the provinces arriving in Buenos Aires for their first time know to come here to find job opportunities. Bauen influences other social movements in a positive way."

Still, not everyone seems overwhelmingly happy. Iurkovich´s sons have recently filed suit to regain ownership of the hotel. They argue that because their father originally built the hotel, that it rightfully belongs to them.

"After the "take", Iurkovich thought the workers would only stick it out for one or two months and then quit" clarified hotel clerk Diego Siles. However, "now that (Iurkovich) sees us fixing everything and making money, he wants (the hotel) back."

The workers dispute Iurkovich sons’ claims, maintaining that because "the government loaned the money and no one ever paid back those loans, the hotel in reality belongs to the government," said Siles. It follows then that the government could legally side with the workers, who have also pledged, if given ownership, to pay back the loans.

Nevertheless, justice seems illusive and a ways down the road. The dispute centered around ownership of Hotel Bauen largely mirrors the problems facing many workers and former owners of recovered factories in Argentina. Yet, in a country rocked by such sharp economic decline and rampant corruption, a fair outcome may prove impossible.

Casanova, who describes herself as "apolitical and without interest in politics", nonetheless concluded on the final outcome of the situation that, "if the government isn´t corrupt, they will side with the workers."

Sammy Loren is a film maker and writer currently living in Buenos Aires