The Expat: Alberto Echegaray Guevara

IMG_1377 (1)CV
Born: Caracas, Venezuela
Lives: Buenos Aires and Washington DC
Education: Degree in public administration at Georgia State University
Profession: Founding partner of Control Micro
Film: The Black Swan
Gadget: GoPro

Forced into exile as a child with his family from his native Venezuela, Alberto Echegaray Guevara’s life is multi-layered. An officer in the Argentine Army, an Internet entrepreneur ahead of his time and the founder of a biotech company, his latest venture has seen him delve into the world of art with his intriguing Moneyball installation, which launched at arteBA, under the pseudonym “Cayman.”

Alberto says: “I came with my family to Argentina in 1979 when I was nine. My father was a politician and he had several problems with (former Venezuelan president) Carlos Andrés Pérez, and he reported him. It was specifically about the overpayment of a petrol and oil cargo boat – the Sierra Nevada.

“First, we went to Brazil and I remember we stayed in this very old place called Hotel Gloria and two weeks after we got there, Carnival took place. It was a complex situation – I was just a kid and I was playing at all these parties in Brazil while my father was very worried. We stayed there for several months then we decided to come to Argentina.

“I knew what was going on but not that much. I was taking the whole situation as a vacation but then suddenly I found myself in school with other kids! There were a lot of differences – for starters, I had a Venezuelan accent and I remember the other kids speaking differently, so it was strange in the beginning. And after two years, Argentina started to be my home.”

Although Alberto now divides his time between his Buenos Aires and Washington DC, his formative years were in Argentina. After high school he went into the Army, which led him to visit every province in the country as well as Antarctica, he worked in politics and he also founded his own businesses.

“Over the past years I’ve worked with (former finance minister) Domingo Cavallo, I worked in Congress as an adviser when I was 26 for a group of deputies, then I left the party and started an Internet company. It was 1998 and at that time I’d become a bit disappointed in politics and so I set up a company that developed demand aggregation, similar to Grupón’s business model which was successful 10 years later. But it was too early for Latin America and Argentina, and then I moved to the US where I lived for 11 years.

“I now run a biotech company that develops microbiology controls for food companies. We are currently testing an application inside hospitals that kill strong viruses; the Muñiz Hospital in Barracas is trying it out at the moment.”

Two and a half years ago, Buenos Aires became Alberto’s base once again but even though his family still live here, it hasn’t been a smooth ride.

“The people are great but it’s a very different culture. And in terms of business it is very difficult. The county has been through a very high inflation rate in the past few years. This whole exchange control system, well, I’ve seen it all before in Venezuela. The lack of investment, the lack of connection with the rest of the world is something I really worry about and every time I travel, I feel it: Argentina is increasingly more isolated.

“People need to start to make changes for the good of society. Argentina is an incredible country with a lot of talent and we need to be in the world again – we have a lot to offer.”

But the main reason for Alberto’s return was taking the next step in his quest to enter a new, more creative field. He says: “I’ve been travelling around for Moneyball and Buenos Aires is very involved in this first project. The project began with the dollar, when I visited the printing and engraving division of the US Treasury Department, where all the inks and security systems are but also where the destruction of money takes place. I was looking at all these translucent tubes with all the cash, and asked my friend who had invited me there, if I could get hold of the money. And I got it from the Federal Reserve (and shredded it inside), with a letter and authorization. Then I started to think about the dollars, that I had US$2 million sitting inside two bags and what I could do with them.

“I started to research it, look at symbology and the history of the dollar and to find a recipient for all this money. I took several courses in sacred geometry in Buenos Aires and chose a sphere because of its uniformity and its uniqueness and because it also represents perfection – something that is perfect on the outside always has something imperfect on the inside, that was created by man – and that’s the money. So after researching, I started to create Moneyball (which is filled with US$1 million) with a team, and it took about a year and eight months. We finished the documentary a month ago and chose arteBA as the place to launch it.

“I was at Art Basel, learning how this new world works. It’s very complex and interesting, and people are becoming more interested in Latin American art. Being at arteBA has been an incredible experience; visitors were queuing up to see ‘the one-million-dollar ball’. And they all had different reactions! Some people think they are fake, others get angry, some people think I’m a capitalist but socialists love it too… the taboo with money is fascinating – it was the booth that everyone was asking for.”

When Alberto was 18 was when Argentina’s inflation was at its worst. “It’s the country that has had the highest inflation in the world after World War II – 16,000 percent in 1989 and 1990 – and that’s why people are so attached to the dollar. There weren’t any barcodes on products at the supermarket, just a sticker with a number. You’d go in the morning but then there’d be another price at midday, another in the afternoon and it would have gone up 15 percent by the evening,” he recalls.

While getting dollars was relatively simple, it was a more complex ball game when it came to replicating the project in Argentina. Aiming to obtain 11 million pesos, the black market equivalent to US$1 million, and create additional spheres, Alberto says: “It was very difficult! I spoke to several people but we couldn’t get authorization for any kind of shredded money from the Central Bank. Then we discovered that they throw the shredded cash into the trash. So we went to the trash can and found the bags, but they were filled with 50-peso and 20-peso bills. We needed 100-peso bills otherwise we’d have to make spheres with two metres in diameter!

“So we started to follow the garbage trucks and after two months, we had 16 million pesos. One journalist has since asked the Central Bank how much they destroy – which is very important – but they don’t keep any records.”

Having lived in two South American countries as well as in the US, Alberto naturally identifies with both and appreciates the contrasts. He says: “I feel both nationalities, actually. I love Latin America – I love Mexico which is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world. And Venezuela is very special for me because I was born there. But it’s so different from Argentina, the mindset is similar yet different in so many ways. Venezuelans are warmer because they are in the Caribbean and a bit more undisciplined! But the main difference is that it’s a petrol state. In every such country you’ll find the oil state syndrome: everybody wants to know ‘why aren’t I rich?’ And that’s very important as it changes the mindset and the culture of a country; people always expect something from the government plus corruption is normal in oil states.”

His next move is to go to Dubai for an exhibition, then who knows where Moneyball will take him next. “We can get pounds, euros, reais… but it’s going to be harder to find bolívares than pesos. You’d need 87 spheres for that, as it’s 87 to one in Venezuela on the black market, six to one is the official rate.”

Buenos Aires Herald, May 31, 2014
Ph: Gastón Levar

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