AFTER years of economic growth, democratic consolidation, and a sprucing up that has helped return some cosmopolitan smartness to this tarnished city, Argentina has hit a rough spot.
The economy is sputtering, unemployment is up several points since November to more than 14 percent, and even Minister of the Economy Domingo Cavallo said last month that the country is in a recession.
As if that weren't enough, a number of the country's provinces are flirting with bankruptcy, unable to pay their employees and retiree pensions. And now Argentina's six-month marriage to Brazil within the southern South American common market, which caught many Argentines' imagination as a ticket to prosperity and international status, is experiencing its first serious lovers' quarrel.
Fortunately, the Argentines have had something to take their mind off all the unpleasantness. That captivating something is five-year-old Daniela Wilner - although after all the headlines, television programs, and radio commentary, she is now known simply as Daniela.
For weeks, interest in Daniela grew in the news as her divorced parents battled over where and with whom their little blond offspring should live. The case might sound so mundane today as to warrant nary a blink. But Daniela was born of two Argentines in Canada, where a court awarded the father custody.
Gabriela Osswald, Daniela's mother, was holed up in a Buenos Aires apartment with her daughter when a judge here ordered her to comply with the Canadian court. Suddenly, the child's story began to resemble a wildly popular soap opera.
The story took on jingoistic hues, with Argentines siding with Daniela's mother. She is la mama, people said, and the mama has the irreproachable wisdom to want to live with the child in Argentina, no matter what a foreign judge says.
At times, 500 demonstrators - mostly mothers - gathered outside the apartment chanting ''Argentina, Argentina.'' One passerby asked aloud if the object of their outburst was a ''little piece'' of the Falkland Islands, referring to the 1982 failed attempt by Argentina to seize the islands off its coast from the British.
National soccer idol Diego Maradona was just one prominent personality to jump into the fray.
''How can I not be moved when they are about to separate an innocent little one from the arms of the mother who is fighting for her?'' he said, standing beside Daniela's mother.
Even President Carlos Saul Menem said Daniela - although Canadian by birth - should live with her mother in Argentina. Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella proposed creating a special body to look after Argentines' parental rights in foreign countries.
''Danielandia'' is how the news magazine Noticias describes the national frenzy on last week's cover, coining a word that plays on the Spanish word Disneylandia - the fantasy theme park.
Sociologists and other observers tend to blame the press for the inordinate attention Daniela has re-ceived. But most everyone recognizes that the mother fired up a press more than ready to put something other than poor economic news on page one. One television station assigned up to 20 reporters to the Daniela story.
''Much of this is the press looking for something new, something that could sell papers and ads and boost ratings,'' says Manuel Mora y Araujo, a well-known pollster here. ''But the other truth is that some of the players in this knew exactly how to feed the press and keep it coming back for more.''
SOME Argentines say the readiness of the country's leaders to challenge a court ruling backed by international accords indicates just how shallow democracy's roots are here. Politicians' responses to the case ''gives me a certain fear,'' communication specialist Eliseo Veron told Noticias.
Others wonder how a custody battle can rally the nation more than the latest news about the 1970s military dictatorship. A former national police sergeant has revealed that detained pregnant women were killed after giving birth so that childless military couples had children to adopt.
By the end of last week, Daniela was back in Canada with her father, and most Argentine newspapers had relegated their daily Daniela update to inside pages somewhere after resurgent economic news. As the search for a court-approved visitation scheme continues, Ms. Osswald has the support of $50,000 from the Argentine government - plus a coterie of journalists who followed her and Daniela to Toronto.