Argentines look for new leaders

Wednesday's arrest of a former official reveals dissatisfaction with the ruling class.

In the eyes of many Argentines, the country's politicians have quite simply run out of answers.

The arrest Wednesday of the country's former economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, is the latest example of a fundamental shift underway here.

Argentina, in the midst of perhaps its worst financial crisis, has abruptly turned against its political class. Instead, the population is looking for leadership elsewhere, and in some unexpected quarters: the business community, the sports arena, and the church.

"People are already searching out those who do not come from a traditional political background," says Martín Redrado, a senior economic strategist. "They're looking for fresh faces and fresh ideas."

Once hailed as Argentina's brightest economic mind, Mr. Cavallo resigned in December after his budget-cutting policies failed to lift Argentina from an economic morass. In one tumultuous two-week period, Argentines saw five successive presidents sworn into office. The latest, Eduardo Duhalde, has struggled to find solutions to Argentina's economic and social chaos.

Now a much-hated figure, Cavallo has been forced to live with police protection since December. He is already banned from leaving the country in a case relating to charges of dereliction of duty for ordering Argentina's banks to freeze some $20 billion held as deposits.

Cavallo is now being investigated for alleged involvement in the illegal shipment of weapons to Croatia and Ecuador in the 1990s.

His detention adds new fuel to a public sentiment of distrust.

"All my adult life, I've seen the same faces in political posts, the same provincial governors, the same congressmen," says a Buenos Aires-based businessman, who asked to remain anonymous. "People are sick of the sight of them. We want them all to go."

Argentines are actively looking elsewhere for leadership, and Mauricio Macri is high on an emerging list of new political lights.

Mr. Macri, a wealthy businessman and president of Boca Juniors, Argentina's most fanatically supported soccer team, has made little secret of his political ambitions. He has established a think tank, hired political analysts, and even taken voice-coaching lessons in order to improve his oral delivery. "Any incoming government would be well advised to knock on his door," says a senior Western diplomat.

Critics say that his family's wealth, which originated from government contracts and privatization proceeds, will undermine any future presidential campaign. "He is certainly representative of Argentina's new entrepreneurial class, but an immense number of people see him as part of the problem, not part of the solution," says Enrique Zuleta Puceiro, a political analyst and director of IBOPE, a polling firm.

So far, Macri is the only outsider viewed by political analysts as a serious presidential contender. But there are other possibilities.

Two consumer advocates have generated a substantial following by fighting against the corruption and declining service quality that followed Argentina's massive privatization program in the 1990s. Sandra González, president of Argentina's Association for the Defense of Consumers and Users, and Patricia Vaca Narvaja, president of Argentine Consumers, both enjoy a nationwide reputation by appearing regularly on Argentine television in defense of popular concerns.

Two famous sportsmen have already made the leap into the political cauldron, although both allied themselves to the Peronist Party. Daniel Scioli, a former international powerboat racing champion, served as sports minister under Peronist President Carlos Saúl Menem in the 1990s, while Carlos Reutemann, a former Formula One racing champion, has become a leading Peronist figure as governor of Santa Fe province.

Even a Roman Catholic priest has attracted widespread political support. Father Luis Farinello, whose reputation for fighting injustice is based on his years of charity work among the soup kitchens of Buenos Aires' poorer neighborhoods, is widely touted as a possible mayor or senator. The 65-year-old priest, who now runs a fledgling political party, the Polo Social, ran for senator of Buenos Aires province last year and, despite limited financing, no elected political experience, and an unprofessional campaign staff, he only narrowly lost.

"Farinello has few resources except his humanity and his energy," says Mr. Zuleta. "He's really walked this country, particularly in areas that have been hardest hit by the crisis. He's not constricted by ideological rigidities, and he's simply adored."

But the search for alternatives to the current political elite also has its darker side. In the 20th century, Argentina suffered six coups d'etat and more than 100 attempted coups. Many people fear that the military could exploit the current political vacuum to seize power once again.

Senior staff officers have sought to dampen the fears, but thousands of ordinary Argentines took to the streets on March 24 – the 26th anniversary of the last coup, in 1976 – to mark their opposition to a military takeover.

"It's very risky for an independent candidate to run for president just now," says Zuleta. "The situation is too turbulent, too difficult to control. But a strong independent candidate who became mayor of Buenos Aires, for example, would be in a good position to mount a presidential campaign further down the line."

Desperate to find a way out of their current malaise, Argentines will continue to search for leaders with fresh ideas. Analysts believe, however, that a wholesale change at the top will take time. "A new batch of politicians will evolve over years," says Mr. Redrado. "A country cannot change its entire political class peacefully overnight."

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