New president gets taste of Argentines' anger over economic crisis

Saturday, December 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa got a taste Saturday of the unrest that brought down his predecessor when a protest against his government's handling of Argentina's economic crisis turned violent. At least 12 police officers were injured.

For the second time in as many weeks, thousands of middle-class Argentines took to the streets with sticks and stones, this time directing their anger at Rodriguez Saa for continuing to restrict access to bank accounts and for appointing several high-ranking officials widely considered corrupt.

Although there were no reported protests outside of the capital, Buenos Aires, some 5,000 people gathered at the Plaza de Mayo to bang pots and pans in a spontaneous outpouring of anger _ in part over a weeks-old government order restricting cash withdrawals from banks to $1,000 a month.

Hours into what began as a peaceful protest late Friday night, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd as it threatened to storm the Government House, better known as Casa Rosada.

Later, some protesters briefly broke into Congress as rage over government austerity measures erupted one week after the deadly riots drove Fernando de la Rua from office.

Twelve police officers were injured, six of them seriously, including one officer who was beaten bloody by a mob before he could be led away from the street battles outside the Government House. Police declined to reveal how many protesters were injured but said 33 people were arrested.

The renewed social unrest cut short the honeymoon for Rodriguez Saa, who took over from De la Rua less than a week ago and is now feeling the wrath of Argentines who say they are fed up with the country's political leaders and their inability to resolve the economic crisis.

``People's patience is wearing thin,'' said Sergio Curia, a 32-year-old lawyer. ``Many people feel the government isn't listening. People want a change in economic policy and they want it now.''

Rodriguez Saa, who met Saturday with top aides at the presidential residence, Olivos, issued a statement saying he was saddened by the violence and appealed to Argentines to ``maintain the peace.''

As a symbolic gesture, his entire Cabinet offered to step down in the case of a government reshuffle.

He also ordered banks to remain open Monday for 12 hours _ double the usual banking day _ to accommodate crowds trying to remove money for the holidays, receive pensions and do other year-end banking business. The move was seen as a way to shorten lines and calm people's anger.

Amid the demonstrations, at least one presidential adviser resigned after angry crowds gathered in front of Olivos, the Congress building and Casa Rosada.

Carlos Grosso, a former mayor of Buenos Aires who has faced a slew of corruption charges, stepped down from his post as the swelling crowds chanted insults at him and demanded that he go.

Many also expressed anger over a Supreme Court decision late Friday to keep in place the limits on cash withdrawals imposed this month by De la Rua to prevent a run on the country's banks.

Since Dec. 1, Argentines have been barred from withdrawing more than $250 a week, and for nearly a week, a ``banking holiday'' prohibited most basic transactions and the changing of peso into dollars.

As the country's economic situation grows more precarious and with one out of five Argentines out of work, many people are worried the peso will lose its value and have tried to get their hands on dollars.

Others have crowded banks demanding full access to their savings for fear that the cash-strapped government may seize bank accounts.

Rodriguez Saa, who took office Dec. 23, has promised to ease the economic crisis. He said Argentina would default on at least part of its $132 billion public debt and introduced a third currency, the ``argentino,'' which he hopes will help revive the South America nation's moribund economy.

Scheduled to debut on Jan. 15, the argentino is to circulate alongside the peso and dollar as Argentina looks to print money as a way out of a cash crunch brought on by more than four years of recession.

But many Argentines worry that a free-floating currency, backed by little more than promises of state support, will quickly depreciate. For nearly a decade, the peso has been firmly pegged one-to-one with the dollar.

Opposition leaders and leaders of Rodriguez Saa's own Peronist Party have criticized the plan. The president reportedly is considering scrapping the argentino, opting instead to print more of the government bonds already in circulation to pay pensions and state workers' salaries.