Argentines hasten to ATMs in a desperate dash for cash
BY TIM JOHNSON
BUENOS AIRES - In a frustrating endeavor that might be called
the ATM Odyssey, thousands of Argentines on
Thursday scurried from one automatic teller machine to another in a desperate hunt for cash.
Many met with failure as Argentina endured its fourth straight day of bank closures.
``Now I have to go tell my wife I couldn't get money, scowled
Alfonso Giménez, a retired bank employee who savings
were frozen by his former employer.
Lines snaked from the few automatic teller machines in downtown
Buenos Aires that did occasionally spit out cash. Only
a fraction of the nation's estimated 7,000 automatic teller machines appeared to be stocked with currency and working.
``This is terrible! There's no money anywhere, said Eduardo Flores,
a battery salesman who said he needed expense
money to make his rounds.
Commerce in Argentina's capital slowed as many stores stopped
accepting payments with credit cards, fearful that
banks, once they reopen, would not make prompt payment. Clients, hoarding cash still in their pockets, made few
President Eduardo Duhalde, whose grip on power remains tenuous,
vowed that the nation's financial system would
open its doors again today, even as most savings accounts remain partially frozen. Duhalde came to office Jan. 1, and
faces demands that he call elections by Sept. 1 instead of finishing his term through the end of 2003.
Throngs of protesters converged in the late afternoon on the
capital's main square, the Plaza de Mayo. Some wore
bandannas over their faces and shook clubs in the air. As helmeted riot police stood by, chants erupted for Duhalde's
Argentina's financial debacle worsened over the weekend, amid
signs of a meltdown of the banking system, when
Economy Minister Jorge Remes Lenicov returned from Washington without a pledge of financial help from the
International Monetary Fund. Remes Lenicov quit Tuesday.
Looking feverishly for a replacement, Duhalde is finding few who want the job.
``I have two or three possibilities, Duhalde told the TN cable
news network. ``I have to speak with all of them in
El Cronista, a leading financial newspaper, said too many difficulties
await any incoming minister to make the job
appealing -- and it noted that job security is likely to range from ``one day to 180 days.
News reports said the front-runner is Roberto Lavagna, Argentina's
current ambassador to the European Union and a
former secretary of industry and foreign trade in the mid-1980s.
Congress offered Duhalde temporary relief earlier in the day.
Shortly after 2 a.m., the lower house joined the Senate in
approving a bill that may stave off a banking system collapse. The bill blocks account holders with judicial rulings in their
favor from withdrawing money from their own accounts. Most bank accounts have been partially frozen since early
Argentina's Central Bank ordered the bank holiday last Friday
to halt a run on banks by account holders who have
received a flood of favorable legal rulings by sympathetic judges.
Millions of Argentina's 37 million citizens are too poor to have
bank accounts. But they, too, are feeling the banking
``Shortages are occurring. Some suppliers don't want to provide
merchandise until the government has an economic
plan, said Hugo Benítez, a sidewalk vendor.
The once-stately banking district in Buenos Aires marked a scene
of striking contrasts. Spray painted slogans marred
the facade of some banks, while handbills stuck to the doors of others.
``Don't put one peso more in the bank, one handbill said. ``The
government and criminal bankers are accomplices in
this fraud. Thieves!
``Crooks! read a spray-painted wall outside a Citibank branch.
As elderly clients queued up at a Banco Sudameris branch, hoping
to collect pensions, which were still distributed on a
limited basis despite the closures, a waiter with a bow tie and vest toted demitasses of coffee to managers inside.
``You don't want to know what I think, a glowering customer said to an inquiring reporter before turning away angrily.
``I just hope this doesn't end in bloodshed, said Ricardo Parras,
a 70-year-old retired human resources manager.
``But I do hope that this causes an implosion that wipes away the entire political class.
Giménez, the retired bank employee, made a gesture toward
the Red Galicia bank where he once worked and said,
``This was one of the best banks in the country.
Then he waved a receipt in the air that showed he held the equivalent
of $2,600 in an account there and said irately:
``If I sacrificed myself working here for 44 years, and was able to save this money from my salary, then I want it. Give
me what I deposited.''
``We've had military coups for situations less serious than this, he added.