Demonstrations erupt in Argentina

With unemployment at 13%, thousands march for improved government aid

BY OSCAR SERRAT The Associated Press: Feb.20, 2004

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina Thousands of people who lost jobs during Argentina's economic crisis blockaded key highways across the country yesterday demanding more government aid.

The growing challenge to President Nestor Kirchner began without incident, but thousands of police officers stood guard in Buenos Aires and other major cities as the demonstrators crowded highways and built road blockades.

The protests have underscored lingering social tension stemming from Argentina's 2001 economic crisis, while the government struggles to find ways to get people back to work after the country’s worst economic crisis in history.

"I've got bills piling up and can't make ends meet and the government needs to do something about it," said Lidia Dominguez, a 64 year old former hospital worker who has been jobless for three years.

She was one of thousands of demonstrators who have protested almost daily to demand greater social benefits for the jobless. Some wore masks and set tires on fire.

The social protest movement sprang up after Argentina's economic collapse two years ago. The crisis was marked by a steep currency devaluation and a five year recession that pushed nearly one in every two Argentines into poverty.

Unemployment remains stuck in double digits at 13 percent even though most economists say the economy grew by at least 8 percent last year.

Hoping to alleviate the social impact of the crisis, Kirchner's government has upheld payments of $50 a month to out-­of work heads of households to more than two million people.

But the government has said it wants to cut about 250,000 people from the welfare payrolls because of suspected graft by groups in charge of distributing the aid.

Officials say government investigations showed in some cases people who found jobs continue to receive the subsidy, or more than one person in a household was receiving it.

The continuing demonstrations coincide with escalating international pressure on the government to negotiate with creditors on the $100 billion in defaulted debt that was another product of the crisis.

Yesterday, German Finance Minister Hans Eichel was in Buenos Aires on the second day of a visit to push Argentina to move ahead with debt talks.

Germany has a leading European voice within the Washington based International Monetary Fund.

Last year, the IMF agreed to an Argentine rescue package totaling $13.3 billion over several years. Yet continued disbursements of the package are dependent on periodic IMF reviews of whether Argentina is making progress on economic reforms promised as part of the plan.