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Cynicism Colors Argentines' Mood

Economy: In Buenos Aires, workers and residents express little hope for improvement.


BUENOS AIRES — In this city of walking wounded, Marta Petachi offers a bitter solution to Argentina's unending economic ordeal: "They should set fire to the whole country."

"We are all poor in this rich country," Petachi, who lives in Martinez, a working-class suburb of the capital, said Thursday. "They have sold us out until we have nothing left. I cry for Argentina. Pity those of us who have very little. Because those with more have taken it and left."

Cynical and disgusted, many Argentines blame a succession of inept or venal politicians for their pain and express little hope that President Eduardo Duhalde, who became the country's fifth president in two weeks Wednesday, will make any difference in their lives.

"If the last president was a piece of garbage, the new one will continue being a piece of garbage," said Jose Palavecino, a government worker whose comfortable middle-class existence of five years ago has been shorn of every luxury.

Salary cuts have forced him to cut off his cable TV, eliminate long-distance phone calls, disconnect a home dryer and forget about his weekly nights out at restaurants. With the government essentially broke, he hasn't been paid in a month. Only a weekend job as a security guard puts food on his table.

Palavecino's harsh words are typical these days among his countrymen, who express little hope that their luck will turn. Devaluation, the return of high inflation and an even deeper recession are what many see around the corner as the country prepares to abandon a failed 10-year economic experiment.

"They say countries get the governments they deserve, but I tell you it's not so. Here there are many people who struggle 12 or 14 hours a day for miserable salaries trying to get ahead," said Julia Berasadi, a retired homemaker. "Everything is an abuse to the people who want to succeed."

Businessman Expects 'More Hypocrites'

Juan Whittaker, a businessman specializing in vinyl products whose wholesale prices have gone up 40% in recent weeks, says he isn't optimistic about Duhalde's prospects. "This man is more of the same. More thieves. More hypocrites in the government. Five governments in two weeks, and five of the same thing," he said. "Enough."

Argentina's economy has been coming apart for years, with the government taking successive measures to preserve the currency's one-to-one peg to the dollar, and to avoid a default on $132 billion in public debt. But each measure only seemed to put people at ground level in a deeper hole. Now they have nothing to show for their sacrifices.

One such budget-cutting measure two years ago cost Ramon Soria his job in a federal ministry. He's been selling lottery tickets ever since on street corners in the capital's Palermo neighborhood. Now ticket sales are down by two-thirds and he worries whether he'll be able to keep even this job.

"Argentina is a disaster, and now they are changing presidents every three days," he said. "The new one is like all the rest--a liar and a thief."

Equally cynical was hairstylist Gonzalo Pan, who works at an upscale salon on Avenida Santa Fe. Will Duhalde make a difference? "The truth is, nothing will change. It's all the same gang," Pan said. "I'm making half what I earned a year ago and working more, 12 hours a day, six days a week. And I still can't afford my hobbies--bicycling, the movies, eating out."

Savings Withdrawal Limits Opened Eyes

What finally brought the crisis home to Argentina's middle class was the $1,000 monthly limit imposed Dec. 3 on savings withdrawals. Designed to stop a run on bank deposits, it sent people out of their homes and into the streets in demonstrations called cacerolazos, after the casserole pots that many clanged together. The groundswell ultimately forced President Fernando de la Rua to resign Dec. 20.

Since then, two members of Congress have served--very briefly and reluctantly--as president in addition to Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, who was forced to resign after allegations that his Cabinet included shady politicians whom Argentines associated more with the cause of the country's problems than with a solution. Duhalde was named president by a special session of Congress on Tuesday to fill out the two years left in De la Rua's term.

Limits on savings withdrawals have caused a paralysis of commerce throughout the nation and brought businesspeople such as Maria Saccone, owner of the Vanessa ladies' wear boutique, to the brink of ruin. Her customers have barely enough cash to make essential purchases, much less to buy her imported apparel, she said.

"We are in total chaos," Saccone said. "The restrictions completely stopped our business."

The withdrawal limits have also caused a bottleneck in the banking system to the point that retirees still haven't received their December pensions or the annual 13th-month bonuses that are a tradition here.

Ernesto Delboni, 79, a retired cabinetmaker, has moved with his two children to his house in the country because he can no longer afford city life.

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