Argentina's Deepening Crisis

ARGENTINES looked back this weekend in disbelief at an unprecedented wave of looting that left 15 people dead, and looked forward in fear that their country's trials are by no means over. President Ra'ul Alfons'in's government managed to stamp out the violence by a combination of force and favors - declaring a state of siege and stepping up food handouts to the hungry poor.

``But it is hard to see how this crisis is over,'' commented a Western diplomat this weekend. ``The streets may be quiet, but the underlying causes of the trouble are still there, and they have not been dealt with.''

Government officials, ranging from Interior Minister Juan Carlos Pugliese to police officers restoring calm to simmering working-class barrios of Buenos Aires, charge left-wing political groups with instigating the looting.

President Alfons'in and President-elect Carlos Menem, after a meeting on Wednesday, issued a joint statement accusing ``identified groups'' with the violence. But they would not specify which organizations they were blaming, and left-wing leaders fear a witch hunt is under way.

``Since the economic crisis broke two months ago, politicians on all sides have been warning of a social explosion,'' argues Ra'ul Tuny, spokesman for the Trotskyite Movement Toward Socialism. ``Now when it happens, they want to blame us.''

``This is ideological persecution,'' complained a leader of another left-wing group, the Workers' Party, before he and five other party leaders were arrested Thursday night.

Even some members of the ruling Radical Party are reluctant to follow the government's line on the reasons for the rioting. ``It is by no means unthinkable that left-wing activists were involved,'' said one Radical leader. ``But there is no doubt that, at bottom, people are feeling real hunger'' in the midst of a hyperinflationary maelstrom.

Federal and state officials are seeking to appease that hunger with hastily improvised handouts of emergency food packages, but organizers acknowledge that they cannot offer a lasting answer.

``It's not a real solution,'' says Jes'us Perreira, municipal Social Action chief of a poor Buenos Aires suburb, as he warmed his hands at a fire on which colleagues were preparing to cook a free meal for slum dwellers.

``When our money for this runs out, the peoples' needs will still be there,'' he adds. ``But at least it's a palliative in very difficult times.''

And most experts concur in a gloomy prediction: that those times are not over yet, despite Mr. Alfons'in's efforts to put the economy on what he calls a ``war footing'' to combat inflation levels that reached 80 percent in May.

The government's latest emergency package of economic measures, such as raising taxes and public-service tariffs, stiffening penalties for price gougers, and tightening bureaucratic controls on public spending, are widely seen as insufficient to deal with the depth of the budget deficit or the gravity of the crisis.

AT the same time, despite Alfons'in's declared intention of remaining in office until his term ends on Dec. 10, the pressures on him to hand over power early to Peronist President-elect Menem are growing.

``I don't think you can stop this vicious spiral of hyperinflation without credibility at government level,'' argues a foreign banker. ``And only the next government has that credibility'' in the wake of the Radicals' defeat in the May 14 elections.

Mr. Menem appears reluctant to take office ahead of the constitutional schedule - not least because of the depth of the current crisis - but he is clearly bracing himself for the plunge.

On Saturday he named the bulk of his Cabinet, and a close adviser said Menem was only waiting for Alfons'in to decide when and how he wants to leave office.

That decision is likely to be colored as much by economic conditions as political considerations, according to diplomats and other analysts here.

``As soon as the currency becomes worthless, the transition has to be cut short,'' argues the foreign banker. ``If the government cannot control inflation, Alfons'in will have to go in July.''

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