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Argentina Leader Pledges to Rebuild

March 1, 2002

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ President Eduardo Duhalde insisted Friday that he would stabilize Argentina’s struggling economy, calling out thousands of supporters to counter daily protests against his handling of the financial crisis.

``We need to rebuild our country,″ the president said before a joint session of Congress. ``I have been called in to end a cycle of decadence and open a new phase, and I’m going to do it.″

Argentine lawmakers are debating Duhalde’s economic plan to pull South America’s second-largest economy from a four-year recession.

Confronting widespread protests since he took power in January, Duhalde had about 17,000 of his own supporters bused to Congress. The crowd raised banners and rallied as he spoke.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 unemployed Argentines marched elsewhere in the capital to demand jobs. ``It’s been months since I’ve held money in my hands,″ said one protester, Maria del Carmen Medina.

The lower house of Congress agreed in principle to Duhalde’s proposed 2002 budget on Thursday night after he clinched a revenue-sharing agreement with provincial leaders that forces them to slash budget deficits by 60 percent.

Duhalde hopes passage of his economic plan _ expected next week _ along with the revenue accord will lure back aid from the International Monetary Fund. In December, the IMF cut off the country’s access to a $22 billion loan program.

Argentina slid into its worst economic crisis in decades late last year because of chronic overspending and the resulting political and social unrest. The country suspended payments on its $141 billion foreign debt and the value of the peso plunged after Duhalde severed its one-to-one link to the dollar.

Duhalde, Argentina’s fifth president since December, is being pressured by the IMF and international investors to cut spending and end years of huge budget gaps.

Argentine officials say they need at least $23 billion to help prop up the economy and the fragile banking system, adding that the peso’s devaluation left many banks practically insolvent.

In Washington, IMF officials supported the revenue-sharing deal with the provinces and said a negotiating team likely will go to Buenos Aires next week.

But some Wall Street analysts said the budget’s projected $1.5 billion deficit is unrealistic. Some economists also insist inflation will be higher than the government’s 15 percent estimate as money is printed to cover deficits.

Duhalde’s budget also has been criticized at home. Thousands of state workers have marched on Congress in recent days, opposing proposed spending cuts in education and other areas.

Standing outside Congress on Friday, Norma Casco said she wasn’t a Duhalde supporter but decided to join the thousands of people gathered on the plaza voicing their support for the president anyway.

``I may not like him, but we’ve got to support him,″ she said. ``We’ve had four presidents in three months. If he goes, there isn’t anyone to replace him.″

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