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Argentines Flock to Saint’s Shrine

August 8, 2003

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Delia Noris Lencina huddled for months on the sidewalk in wind and rain to be the first of tens of thousands of Argentines, many jobless, who flooded a shrine to the patron saint of work.

Some 18 months after a financial meltdown, Argentina is embarking on a tepid rebound from food riots, double-digit unemployment, debt default and devaluation.

But the crowds swelling outside the church of St. Cayetano on Thursday, the day marking the saint’s annual celebration, bore witness that recovery is painfully slow.

Moving on her knees, Lencina became the first to enter a candlelit church where many held up stalks of wheat symbolizing prosperity and then prayed for jobs before a statue to the saint of ``bread and work.″ She camped outside the church in a cardboard lean-to in order to be the first inside on the saint’s day.

``I’ve waited in line for three months now but the cold and rain don’t matter a bit,″ said Lencina, 59, shivering in a poncho in the Argentine winter. ``This year I’m coming to pray for my son who is unemployed.″

Every Aug. 7 on the saint’s day, the scene is repeated as Argentines line up for blocks. In recent years, the crowds have been especially large as the country copes with new and grinding poverty.

At the height of the crisis last year, the unemployment rate hit a record 21 percent as poverty engulfed one in every two of the country’s 36 million people.

Now, there are flickers of recovery. New government figures last week showed the country’s unemployment rate had begun to dip, down to 15.6 percent as of May.

Independent analysts say the rate should be higher because the government listed hundreds of thousands of Argentines on new public work programs as gainfully employed.

In many working-class districts, such as the La Boca neighborhood along the waterfront in Buenos Aires, the hangover from the economic crisis lingers on the streets.

Tucked in among La Boca’s brightly colored tin shacks is the home of Monica Cibeira, now converted into the ``St. Cayetano″ community soup kitchen that feeds hundreds of struggling Argentines each week _ typical of the scores of soup kitchens nationwide that emerged post-crisis.

More people come to the soup kitchen every month, and Cibeira’s aging house of tin, brick and wood has slowly ceded most of its rooms to increased demand. She now feeds more than 150 people nightly.

``In the last month, 35 new people started coming here and although there is no more space, I can’t close the door on them,″ she said as a beef-and-bean stew bubbled in a vat for hungry visitors.

Of Argentina’s 36 million people, 2.2 million of the work force are reported without jobs. Many, like Silvia Astorga, depend on soup kitchens, handouts and limited government assistance to survive.

Astorga said she lives in a wooden shack without running water or heat. ``I do what I can to get by,″ she said.

Although Argentina is a major world grain exporter, government figures show that 26.3 percent of Argentina’s people can’t even afford basic foodstuffs.

Meanwhile, some 40,000 people are reported by the city government to be scavenging in the capital streets each night for cardboard and anything else that can be recycled.

Still, the new president, Nestor Kirchner, has raised some hopes that the recovery will accelerate.

At the St. Cayetano shrine, women prayed and sang religious songs while hoping the saint would end the crisis.

``I’ve been out of work for a year and I don’t know what else to do,″ said Monica Suarez, 28. ``I think faith is the last thing, and I hope St. Cayetano can help me.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Associated Press writer Mayra Pertossi contributed to this report.

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