Proud Argentina proclaims 'victory in defeat'; Argentine economy spins downward

Hilda Solis runs a fashionable dress shop in downtown Buenos Aires that normally turns over $25,000 in sales each week.

But these are not normal times - and Hilda's business last week was a mere $ 55 for a scarf, ''Sold, I think, to a foreigner.''

She has had declining sales for a year. But with the Argentine economy on the skids in recent months, things have gotten much worse. She worries how she can pay her rent this month.

Hilda Solis is not alone. Hundreds of business people here are wondering the same thing. Employers all across town have been reluctantly laying off workers, cutting back on hours, and doing just about everything else they can to cut costs. There is no relief in sight.

Business bankruptcies are up. Many stores like Hilda's dress shop have closed their doors in recent weeks.

As the fighting continues between Argentina and Britain in the South Atlantic , with the cost on both sides mounting, there is another struggle going on here. The Argentine economy is in a tailspin downward.

Just this week, the Ministry of Economy released a gloomy set of statistics suggesting that the Argentine economy had slipped backward yet again - and is similar to what it was inthe mid-1960s.

There is no indication that Argentines can expect any slowing of the economic slump or any improvements in the near future.

The Ministry of Economy figures show that the gross national product fell 5.7 percent in the first three months of 1982, that manufacturing activity was off 9 .4 percent in the same period, construction down 15.5 percent, and domestic consumption off 13.7 percent.

Moreover, last week the government announced a cost of living spiral of 128 percent during the 12 months ending May 30.

None of these figures comes as a surprise to Argentines. People like Hilda Solis are acutely aware of the economy's rapid decline. They see it in dwindling sales, in the soaring cost of living, in unemployment roles that are now officially at 6 or 7 percent, but probably are closer to 15 percent.

''This is the worst of times,'' Hilda Solis says. ''And it was at this moment the generals decided to take us to war.''

The war over the Falklands is likely to aggravate every one of the economic indicators. Few nations0have gone to war so willingly when their economic fortunes were so low.

But, of course, the military government headed by Army Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri did not expect war to break out when it invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands April 2. Britain was not supposed to react to the invasion by sending a fleet and an army to repossess the islands.

The generals apparently expected the invasion to turn attention away from the worsening economic pinch - and give Economy Minister Roberto Teodoro Alemann time to work economic miracles aimed at rescuing the economy.

With the British decision to contest the Argentine seizure of the Falklands, however, Mr. Alemann's economic game plan went out the window in the same way that peace in the South Atlantic has disappeared.

The war weighs heavily on the economy. Ministry spokesmen say it has cost $4 billioN already. That cost is eroding further the possibility of economic recovery.

''If I close this store,'' Hilda Solis says, ''I will be out of a job - and will have to rely on my son's salary to take care of me. I don't have much in the way of savings. I do own an apartment, but that is about all.''

She is not unique. Many families are scrimping even more, taking unemployed relatives into the expanding family circle. There is no social security system or unemployment relief fund in Argentina comparable to that in the United States , West European nations, or other Latin American countries.

For the Argentines, who have prided themselves on their economic superiority over other countries, the worsening economic picture is a bleak and pride-demolishing development.

''I always thought Argentina was insulated against severe economic problems, '' Hilda says. ''After all, look at our grain and meat production. It is some of the best in the world - and much in demand in a world beset with starvation.''

This week, however, Argentines learned that even in that sector things are not good.

Grain sales to the Soviet Union, which last year totaled 15.5 million tons and brought in more than $2 billlion in hard currrency, largely dollars, are down this year - and probably won't exceed 9.5 million tons.

Trying to put the best face possible on this situation, Miguel Martinez, head of the Argentine farmers' cooperative, said he would not worry if the Soviet Uniof cut babk in Argentine grain purchases ''as once and for all Argentina must cease to be dependent upon one or two markets for its grain.''

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