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Argentine Children's Plight

November 25, 2002

Maria Rosa Gomez died Nov. 11 at the children's hospital in Tucuman, a city in northern Argentina, She was 6 years old and weighed 18 pounds. Her malnourished brothers, Pablo and Juan Facundo, were in the same hospital. In a country as historically rich as Argentina, this might normally be described as an isolated case of horrible child abuse. But 52 more malnourished children are in the same hospital, say local news reports, and Tucuman is not the only place where this is happening in economically distressed Argentina.

In Catamarca, a nearby province, the staff of the Eva Peron hospital report that they can hardly keep up with the more than 600 children ages 2 to 6 who have come to its doors suffering from malnutrition. The same thing is happening in the Rio Negro, Neuquen, Chubut and La Rioja provinces.

Undernourishment of children has long been a critical problem in Latin America. But not, until recently, in Argentina, a major grain and beef exporter with a reputation as South America's breadbasket. In much of the 20th century, Argentina was a wealthy land of opportunity, second choice for poor European immigrants after the United States. In the last two decades, however, unscrupulous, irresponsible politicians obsessed with winning reelection have been on a spending rampage that has drained the country's resources.

How is it possible, Argentines wonder, in a country that is the world's fifth-largest exporter of agricultural products, that children with swollen bellies and emaciated faces are rushed to hospitals in a desperate effort to save their lives?

Dr. Gabriela Lopez Romano of Tucuman's children's hospital places blame on the local politicians. "They are shameless. They steal the money that comes from the federal government to fund social programs for the needy." The respected newspaper La Nacion has picked up the doctor's accusations in demanding a federal investigation.

An August report by Transparency International, an independent watchdog group that surveys corruption in 102 nations, also singled out Argentina for criticism. The Argentine state, says the report, is "captured by a network of leaders who misuse it in the service of their business and political interest." Argentina is in the middle of an economic crisis, one that is surely aggravated by investor wariness of government corruption. But even at its worst, Argentina should be able to feed its children.

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