VIEDMA, Argentina — It is a winter like no other on the vast and empty prairies of Argentina's Patagonia.
Bemused expectation is in the air, skittering like desert tumbleweeds on the cold winds now raking this frontier region of the Southern Hemisphere, for President Raul Alfonsin proposes to move Argentina's capital here.
The proposal has generated a sense of new promise across a landscape of limitless sweep that has traditionally proved more attractive to sheep than to man.
Patagonia, typically near the bottom of Argentine national priorities, is suddenly at the very top.
"It is electrifying, like science fiction," Viedma Mayor Juan Cabalieri said recently. "Our wealth and beauty have always been forgotten, never by God, but by all governments."
Architect Jose Luis Bacigalupo, who now heads a national planning commission recalled: "The president called me in April and took my breath away. He said: 'I want you to help me move the government to Patagonia.' "
Alfonsin announced the plan out of the blue to a stunned country a few weeks later, proclaiming the need to establish "a second republic" as an antidote to stagnation and national shortsightedness.
Now, the government is preparing legislation that would transfer Argentina's capital from Buenos Aires 600 miles south to a new 2,400-square-mile federal district here. The district would encompass Viedma, a three-plaza, two-movie-house administrative center of 30,000, and its cross-river rival, Carmen de Patagones, a historic cow town about half that size.
"We have seen projections for a population in this area of up to 300,000 in four or five years," said Jose Pappatico, president of the Viedma Chamber of Commerce.
Already, new settlers are coming to Argentina's last frontier.
"Every day families get off the train looking for a new life. It's not an avalanche by any means, but the influx has begun. Our most urgent need right now is for mattresses," said Bishop Gustavo Vetti, vicar of Viedma's Roman Catholic cathedral.
Alfonsin's idea has broad support in a congress as disillusioned as most other Argentines with the dominance of Buenos Aires over all aspects of national life. About 10 million people, more than a third of the population, live cheek by jowl in Greater Buenos Aires.
Quarter of Country
By contrast, Patagonia, everything south of the Rio Colorado from the Atlantic to the Chilean border, encompasses a quarter of Argentina's national territory with an average population density of less than two people per square kilometer. Total population is just over 1 million, less than 4% of the national total.
"Our Patagonia is like the American Wild West used to be, except that Americans went West," said architect Bacigalupo.
From the Atlantic to the snow-topped mountain frontier with Chile, Patagonia's challenge has historically been more alluring to foreigners than to Argentines. At the turn of the century, there was not much beyond an end-of-the-trail outpost at Carmen de Patagones, nomadic Indians, British missionaries in Tierra del Fuego, and a tiny Welsh colony in what is now Chubut province.
Mixture of Peoples
In Patagonia today, thousands of Chileans, many of them of Araucanian Indian ancestry, mingle with the rough-hewn descendants of Italian, Spanish, German, English and Welsh settlers in isolated cities and on big-sky ranches stretching to the bottom of the Earth.
"There are some lovely valleys on this ranch," William Roberts, the manager of one spread in Patagonia's mountain Neuquen province, told a visitor.
The land is as poor and as dry as it is vast. Outside the river valleys, everything taller than a shrub has been planted and coaxed to growth by man. One rancher's grazing rule for his standard four-league (25,000 acres) section in the new federal district: for pastureland improved with tough African grasses, one sheep per hectare (2.47 acres) and one cow for every five or six sheep.
All Argentine governments have delivered relentless rhetoric to Patagonia, but few have actually done much, in the Patagonian view, beyond exploiting rich deposits of oil from the plains, gas and coal and mountain hydroelectric potential for the benefit of Buenos Aires.
"We have always been the last to get everything," complained Julio Ernesto Montenegro, a young shopkeeper in Carmen de Patagones. "Even now, they say the capital is coming--but try to get a building loan to be ready to compete with the entrepreneurs who will come with it."
There is a fierce, almost tribal pride among the pioneers who have embraced Patagonia's earth-tone beauty, its outdoors appeal and six-shooter flavor. Argentine city slickers tend not to trifle with patagonicos , as they call themselves.
"I am patagonico. I have made friends with the wind, and the emptiness," said Pappatico, the 58-year-old son of a 1914 Italian immigrant.