By Kevin Gray
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Ramon Puerta, a provincial politician from a remote jungle corner of Argentina, became caretaker president today as Congress accepted the resignation of a leader driven from power by a devastating economic crisis and deadly riots.
Fernando de la Rua returned to his offices at the Government House, or Casa Rosada, for the last time today, lifting a state of emergency just before Congress finalized his departure as president of this vast South American nation of 36 million people.
The transition came during relative calm throughout the country after two days of anti-government unrest, during which 22 people were killed and riot police in the capital clashed with thousands of demonstrators. Days of supermarket looting and other violence appeared to be easing despite continued reports of some scattered ransackings of homes and shops.
Meeting in a special session, both chambers of Congress formally approved the resignation of De la Rua, whose elected four-year term was cut in half after economic and social chaos sparked the unrest.
A $132 billion debt crisis and four years of recession have left Argentina teetering on the edge of financial collapse and close to defaulting on its crushing debt burden. Many economists predict a default or a devaluation are now imminent as the economy shows few signs of regaining strength.
The Congressional action, required by law, left Puerta, the Senate leader and a wealthy businessman from Misiones province, provisionally in charge of the executive branch at least until this weekend.
Lawmakers dominated by Argentina’s largest party, the Peronists, were wrangling over whether to keep Puerta in charge only a matter of hours. Some called for finding a successor who would guide the troubled country to new elections within 90 days.
Speaking to reporters, Puerta, a Peronist, said today he wanted to hold the presidency only temporarily while Congress decides whether to call new elections that could be held in two to three months.
“I’ve never held a post for which I have not been elected,” Puerta told reporters. “But I will fulfill my duties to the republic in these very difficult moments.”
In his last act as president, De la Rua, 64, signed an order revoking the emergency powers he took up Wednesday night to control spiraling social unrest. He had originally announced that the state of emergency, or a “state of siege,” would be in place for 30 days.
De la Rua was departing as one of the most unpopular leaders in Argentina’s history. He took office in December 1999 with a popularity rating above 70 percent, a no-nonsense image and a pledge to improve the economy. But he soon became seen as indecisive, and left with ratings in single digits.
In his last comments as president, De la Rua lashed out at the opposition Peronists for failing to join him in a national unity government – a decision that hastened his political downfall.
“The Peronists made a mistake,” he said this morning before his resignation was accepted. The opposition rejected his request for a unity government Thursday, as angry and hungry Argentines around the country were protesting and looting.
The 30-day state of emergency gave authorities the right to make arrests without court order and prohibited unauthorized public gatherings. It was the first time in 11 years that an Argentine president has enforced such a decree.
The rioting and looting prompted by Argentina’s economic troubles was the worst unrest in a decade. Some looting continued in the major cities of Cordoba and Rosario, and in Buenos Aires province surrounding the capital, but authorities said today it appeared to be abating.
It was a different scene from that on Thursday, when downtown streets in Buenos Aires became a battleground of flying tear gas and rubber bullets as thousands of demonstrators counterattacked with flying rocks and paving stones. More than 200 people were injured.
With joblessness at near-record levels topping 18 percent, the next government will face a tough challenge in reviving plummeting growth, production and consumer confidence.
Some worried that a caretaker government won’t be able to take the tough steps needed at a time of deepening economic and social chaos.
Pablo Briones, a 43-year-old insurance salesman, said a hastily arranged government won’t solve anything. “The past few days were ugly, but many more are ahead,” he said, adding his worries about the wobbly peso, pegged one-to-one with the dollar since 1991.
“I’m worried about a devaluation and my sister who hasn’t had a job for more than six months,” he said.
Many analysts now predict the new government will likely end the Argentine peso’s one-to-one peg with the dollar, in place since 1991. While it helped Argentina vanquish hyperinflation more than a decade ago, today it is blamed for making Argentine exports uncompetitive abroad.
Any devaluation of the peso could mean instant bankruptcy for thousands of Argentines, along with many of the country’s largest businesses. More than 80 percent of contracts and debts are denominated in the dollar. Standing in a bank line in downtown Buenos Aires, Carlos Ramela said he hoped the new government would learn from De la Rua’s missteps.
“We’ve sent a message to the political leaders that we want a change in economic policy. You can’t turn around an economy cutting people’s salaries and money from pensioners. Let’s hope the new guys understand that!”
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