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Argentines Pray for Jobs

August 7, 2002

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Lining up for blocks Wednesday, tens of thousands of faithful carrying stalks of wheat to symbolize lost prosperity filed through the sanctuary of Argentina’s patron saint of work to pray for an end to record unemployment.

As U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill made the rounds at the Economy Ministry with hopeful talk of a rebound, jobless Argentines called on St. Cayetano to help their country rise out of a devastating four-year recession.

About 22 percent of workers are without jobs and more than half the country’s 36 million people live in poverty. Argentina has defaulted on its foreign debt, devalued its currency and frozen bank accounts, and international agencies remain leery of providing financial assistance without significant changes in government spending.

The troubles in what was once South America’s richest nation have in recent years added to the poignancy of Aug. 7 _ the date when Argentina’s Roman Catholics pay homage to St. Cayetano, their patron saint of work and prosperity.

``Every time I come here I ask him to help me find a job. It has not happened yet, but he will help me. I’m sure of it,″ said Voldanero Alvarez, a factory worker who has been unemployed four years.

Lastenia Morales, a 67-year-old retiree also visiting St. Cayetano Church in the working class district of Liniers, said she barely survives on her pension of 100 pesos a month, worth only $35 these days.

``We’ve never had a time like this in Argentina. I suffer every day for the mistakes of our government and leaders. That is why I come here to ask for salvation,″ she said, shuffling along with a rusty metal cane.

Many stood in line for hours _ some had camped out for days or weeks _ waiting to touch the faded red and white statue of St. Cayetano. Church workers kept the crowd moving. After some touched the icon, they hugged the waiting priests. Others prayed on their knees, weeping.

``I haven’t worked for several months, but thankfully my older sons help put food on the table for all of us,″ said Antonio Frutos, 48, who was with his wife, five children and four grandchildren.

``We came to ask St. Cayetano for our continued health and for work,″ he said. ``We always have hope.″

Hope is the only thing many Argentines have these days. Even that is hard to come by.

Hunger and desperation boiled over into riots in December that claimed 29 lives. The protests toppled an elected president, and a series of successors has struggled to come up with an economic rescue plan.

A parish priest, the Rev. Carlos Bernardone, said people are suffering but find solace by coming together on St. Cayetano’s day.

``The people of Argentina’s faith is always strong,″ he said, pausing between taking confessions. ``Lots of these people can’t even afford to take the train or bus here anymore, so they walk, some of them for hundreds of kilometers (miles).″

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