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Argentines Hit President’s Vow to Pay Debt

January 3, 2006

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ President Nester Kirchner’s promise to pay off the country’s near $10 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday is drawing protest by some Argentines who say the money should be spent on social programs.

But supporters applaud the promise as a way for Argentina to reclaim its economic independence after a long and difficult relationship with the international organization.

Kirchner’s Dec. 15 announcement that his government will pay off its $9.8 billion debt to the IMF came after Brazil announced it would repay its entire $15.5 billion obligation.

Last week, about 100 retirees held a whistle-blowing demonstration at Kirchner’s office in Buenos Aires to oppose the decision.

``The president is paying off the IMF, but he should really be paying off the debt to society. This is our money that is going to pay the Fund,″ said Ricardo Bruno, a 65-year-old retiree.

Some opposing the move say they can’t remember when the government last increased monthly pension payments of as little as $130 that many elderly survive on.

Still, Argentine political analyst Felipe Noguera said the move by Kirchner _ one of a wave of center-left presidents elected in South American this decade _ seems more widely popular than unpopular because of how he played it.

``When the IMF lends you money it has all these strings attached,″ he said. ``But if you don’t owe the IMF money, the IMF can’t poke its nose into your affairs even though IMF money is cheaper than the money that’s available on the open market.″

However, Noguera called repayment a mostly symbolic step, overshadowed by Argentina’s renegotiation last year of more than $100 billion in defaulted external debt to jilted creditors worldwide.

Three years ago, Argentina’s economy began growing again after its deepest crisis on record, making the IMF payment feasible. But the economy is by no means vibrant: 40 percent of the 36 million people remain in poverty and the unemployment rate is stuck in double digits as jobless protests persist.

Some strongly support Kirchner, like shoeshine man Fidel Aquino.

``It’s good we are finally paying off this debt. It’s just like in your home; you’ve got to pay your bills,″ said Aquino.

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