(Copyright © 2002 Al Aronowitz)

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Subject: Cry for Argentina as Economy Unravels
Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 13:36:22 -0500

November 18, 2001

Middle classes cry for Argentina as economy unravels

Teachers, police and doctors have not been paid for months, reports Sophie Arie in Buenos Aires

Doorbells get a lot of use in Argentina. Often it is people selling unsolicited kitchen sponges or asking for a few pesos to prop up the district fire service. When Elsa Gutman rang the bell of a Buenos Aires house last week wrapped in a thick fur coat and with immaculately coiffed hair, the inhabitants thought at first she might have lost her poodle. It was only when she started talking about plumbing and painting that it became clear that she was peddling DIY aid.

Elsa, 54, is typical of a once thriving middle class in Argentina that is struggling to make ends meet after more than three years of devastating recession. Her husband, who lost his job in a bank 16 months ago, has turned himself into an odd-job man and Elsa, a former teacher, helps to find him work.

'I never thought I'd be doing this, but Argentina is falling apart. This is the only way we have left to pay our bills,' said Elsa, whose chipped nail varnish and laddered stockings are the only tell-tale signs of her troubles.

In the past year Argentina has lurched from one crisis to another as the government of President Fernando de la Rua battled to save his country---the seventh richest in the world a century ago---from bankruptcy. The big fear on the markets is that any day now Argentina may fail to pay the crippling interest on its $132 billion public debt.

But for many the country is already socially in default. Some teachers, doctors, dustmen and policemen have not been paid for up to five months and banks have stopped providing loans. Since the beginning of November, social security benefits for the elderly have dried up, reducing health cover to emergencies only, and leaving most of the four million subscribers stranded and scared.

'This is like being in a war. People are going to die if they don't do something,' shouted Horacio Bullman, shaking his fist in anger as he queued for an X-ray in a public hospital after being turned away at two others.

'What did I work for all my life? This? They don't care about us. It's as if they think we are disposable items.'

'It's shameful. Our old people don't even have the right to die any more because they have stopped paying for funerals,' said Hugo Moyano, the lorry-driver leader of the strongest national union, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), which has called for a massive protest in the streets of Buenos Aires on 20 November.

Argentina has long prided itself on being an oasis of European living standards, with a large middle class, in a region dogged by poverty. But unemployment is now at 18 per cent, another 15 per cent are 'underemployed' and just under a third of the country's 37 million population live under the poverty line.

Horse-drawn carts have appeared on the streets of the capital, Buenos Aires, used by hundreds of families who travel from the surrounding countryside to scour the pavements for old, reusable junk. Many shops and restaurants are boarded up; the grand avenues that cut through this elegant capital city, often described as the Paris of Latin America, are almost deserted at rush hour.

Cash-related crime is soaring, with shootouts reported in the city centre almost daily.

Some 42 policemen have been killed this year alone and armed bouncers in bullet-  proof vests guard supermarkets, pharmacies and restaurants.

On average, there are two armed bank robberies a day and people are frequently abducted in broad daylight, in taxis or on the streets, and forced to withdraw their savings from a cash point.

Nature has added to Argentina's woes. Thousands of farmers in the vast central pampas region watched helplessly as their crops and livestock were washed away by record floods during the past six weeks. About 14,000 stranded villagers are still frantically struggling to build levees of sand and more rain is expected.

Public anger has grown since Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo slashed state salaries and pensions by 13 per cent in July. In recent mid-term elections, more than a fifth of voters cast blank or spoilt votes to show their despair.

Meanwhile the hunt is on for countless absentee state employees, nicknamed the 'gnocchi', who quietly collect a salary every month, traditionally celebrated with copious servings of the Italian potato-based dish, without ever going to work.

'This government is catatonic. It has abandoned its people to their fate,' said Roberto Bacman, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. 'People are at their wits' end.'

In the queue outside the Spanish embassy, bleary-eyed young people stake out their place at four o'clock in the morning for the much-prized work visa or dual nationality that will allow them to bail out of their sinking ship of a country.

'I don't want to leave. I love my country, but there is just no future here,' said Juan Fernández, a 26-year-old engineer, clutching his file full of papers and emigration forms.

Many young, educated Argentinians, whose grandparents emigrated from war-torn Europe in the first half of the last century, have fled back to Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Britain in the past year in search of work.  

'Argentina is not just in a crisis, this country is a write-off,' Fernández said. 'Our politicians have plundered the system for so long, corruption is so much part of life. I can't believe that will ever change.'  ##


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