Argentina's Shock Reforms Pay Off

After a year in office, President Menem faces little opposition to bold, controversial policies

AS Carlos Sa'ul Menem celebrates his first anniversary as Argentina's president on Sunday, his proudest boast is that he has pulled his country back from the brink of disaster. When he was hurriedly sworn in last July, five months ahead of schedule, Argentina was swamped by triple-digit monthly hyperinflation, food riots, and doubts as to whether it was even governable.

``We have put out the tremendous fire that was raging in the country, and from the ashes ... we are beginning to give Argentina the place it deserves among the world's nations,'' President Menem said in a recent interview.

Even foreign bankers, some of the most skeptical observers of Argentine affairs after years of fruitless loans, are grudgingly admiring of the Peronist government's achievement.

``At least when I come into the office in the morning, I know roughly what is going to happen that day,'' says a European banker. ``That's a significant improvement on a year ago.''

But the relative normality that now prevails in Buenos Aires has been achieved at a cost that has yet to be fully gauged.

Mr. Menem has declared that he is engaged in a crusade to make historic changes in Argentina, to finally turn the country around after 60 years of political turbulence marred by periods of military dictatorship and half a century of economic decline.

The methods he has used in getting down to the task - allying himself with the right-wing Union of the Democratic Center, for example - have left confusion and continuing uncertainty about the future in their wake.

On the economic front, as soon as he took office, Menem launched a Thatcher-style drive to cut government spending, sell off state enterprises, and open up a market economy - steps that bore little relation to his campaign platform.

But even economic analysts sympathetic to such free market fervor are cautious about the next few months.

``So far, the government has made only cashflow corrections,'' argues Enrique Szewach of the business-backed think tank, Latin American Economic Research Foundation. ``But it obviously hasn't begun on the real structural adjustments yet. The costs that other countries have had to pay to escape from hyperinflation have still to be paid here.''

Even so, the cost of stability has not been slight - a recession has brought industrial production down by 20 percent, pushed bankruptcies to record highs, and pushed tens of thousands of workers out of their jobs.

Ominous predictions that such hardship would provoke violent social upheaval, however, have proved unfounded. Indeed, opposition of any sort to Menem's policies has shown little vigor.

The trade union movement, divided between government supporters and opponents, is more docile than government officials had anticipated. ``The whole economy is in such a state that unions are very worried about job security and issues other than wages,'' says a foreign labor analyst. ``Anyway, no one can afford to lose a day's wages'' through a strike.

Meanwhile, the largest opposition party, former President Ra'ul Alfons'in's Radical Civic Union, has yet to recover from the drubbing it took in last year's elections. It has offered little debate over the Peronists' performance. ``The fact is that no one knows what else could be done,'' says a Western diplomat.

At the same time, attempts to organize political parties by the rebellious, right-wing fundamentalist group of Army officers known as the Carapintadas - whose leaders Menem has thrown out of the military - have shown little success.

Ironically, much of the opposition to the president comes from within his own Peronist party no cap, surprised and confused by their leader's lightning departure from Juan Per'on's doctrine of generous social welfare policies and heavy reliance on the state.

``Most Peronists are sitting there with their tongues hanging out wondering what on earth is going on,'' says a foreign Peronist-watcher, as Menem redefines Peronism as ``this government, this change, this evolution.''

Whether his drive to give Peronism a new identity will be matched by a new Argentine identity, though, remains to be seen. A year ago, in his inaugural speech, Menem called on Argentina to ``rise up and walk.'' Today, he says cautiously, his country ``is walking - unsteadily, stumbling, but it is on its feet. It's like a year-old baby; in a year you can't expect miracles.''

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