December 19, 2001

Looting, rioting in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) --Police stormed a city hall in western Argentina
Wednesday where rioting workers had trashed their offices, smashing and overturning
furniture. The frenzy was the latest as anger over a deep economic crisis boiled over
around the country.

Earlier Wednesday, police firing tear gas quelled a looting rampage by some 2,000
people in a commercial district near the capital, Buenos Aires.

Wednesday's unrest came after a weekend of scattered supermarket lootings in cities
across the country. Argentines are desperate after four years of recession that has
pushed unemployment above 18 percent. The government has partially frozen
accounts to halt a run on the banks.

In the western city of Cordoba, hometown of embattled President Fernando de la
Rua and his increasingly unpopular Economy Minister, Domingo Cavallo, angry
clerks in City Hall rioted in their offices on Wednesday.

Television reports showed riot police entering and lining up behind shields in
smoke-filled offices to secure the building. There were no immediate reports of
casualties in Cordoba, but police said five officers were injured in the looting in the
run-down shopping district of San Miguel, on the northwestern rim of greater
Buenos Aires. They had no reports on injuries among the crowd.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as the crowd, gathering since late Tuesday,
began looting shops of food and clothing early Wednesday. Hundreds of people
smashed windows and pried open metal shop fronts, carting away slabs of meat and
plastic bags full of food and clothing.

The looters lit trash fires in the streets where women with shopping bags picked up
scattered goods.

"We don't have any money, we are hungry and we have to eat!" shouted one
unidentified woman.

The looting took part along a broad avenue where unemployment has soared well
above the national average.

A police official, Juan Alberto Saiz, told the newspaper La Nacion that some 2,000
people had taken part in the disturbance and that some 40 shops were looted.

The violence in San Miguel and other poor communities across Argentina began late
last week with supermarket lootings in Rosario and Mendoza, two major provincial
cities hard-hit by unemployment.

De la Rua's beleaguered government has announced eight highly unpopular austerity
plans during its two years in power, including a 13 percent cut in the wages of state
workers and moves to slash pensions and raise taxes.

Hoping to blunt the rising hunger and poverty, the government this week began
disbursing more than 400,000 pounds of food aid -- mostly meat, rice, powdered
milk and vegetables.

The food packages destined for Argentina's poorest communities came after Labor
Minister Jose Dumon acknowledged Tuesday that "social tensions" exist in

Argentina's powerful unions called a 24-hour national strike last Thursday that
crippled public transport and most economic activity.

At the root of the crisis is a recession triggered by years of public overspending and
heavy borrowing that has left Argentina on the brink of defaulting on its staggering
$132 billion public debt.

The 18.3 percent jobless rate has left nearly 15 million of the 36 million population at
or below the poverty line as consumer spending has been choked off and industrial
activity plummeted 11 percent last month.

Buenos Aires has seen several protests in recent days including a march Tuesday by
Argentine shoemakers who complained that a flood of cheap Brazilian imports was
pushing them out of business. They lit ablaze a Christmas tree decorated with
Brazilian footwear as ornaments.

Monday saw a daylong strike by freight and passenger trains that stranded
thousands of commuters.

Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo has said he wanted to slash the 2002 budget
from $49 billion to $39.6 billion.

On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund turned up the heat on Argentina,
saying its economic policy was unsustainable.

Speaking in Washington, the Fund's chief economist, Kenneth Rogoff, told reporters
"it's clear that the mix of fiscal policy, debt, and the exchange rate regime is not

The IMF earlier this month held back $1.3 billion after Argentina failed to meet
previously agreed upon budget deficit targets.

Finance Secretary Guillermo Mondino said Argentina desperately needed IMF
support for an upcoming debt swap. Argentina is asking creditors to exchange
existing government debt for longer-term bonds with lower interest rates.

"It's clear that if we don't have an orderly debt restructuring, we're dead meat,"
Mondino said.

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press