Argentines search for a leader in tough times

Former Argentine President Carlos Menem received the most votes in a close election Sunday and will face Nestor Kirchner in a May 18 second election.

Elizabeth Dunbar

As Dante Marino counted potato seeds in a St. Paul campus greenhouse, election officials in his home country of Argentina counted votes for the next president.

Though voting is obligatory for Argentines, Marino was off the hook because he is in the United States.

If he had been there Sunday when candidates Carlos Menem and Nestor Kirchner advanced to a second round of elections to be held May 18, Marino said, he would have voted for Menem.

“The country is approaching another moment in which someone must make very important decisions,” said Marino, who is in the University’s Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee program.

After the country fell into economic crisis in December 2001, Argentina’s President Fernando de la Rua resigned. Five different presidents took office temporarily until current president Eduardo Duhalde called for elections.

Looking for a leader to bring the country out of an economic recession that has forced thousands off the payroll and into poverty, voters gave Menem – who was president from 1989 to 1999 – the most votes.

Marino said he and other Argentines have confidence that Menem can improve the economy and the country’s international relations.

“We have to earn credibility on the international level,” Marino said, adding that foreign investors and other countries will take their money out of a country that makes bad economic decisions.

Pablo Pineyro, another Argentine who came to study at the University and work in the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said he would have voted for Kirchner.

The election results were surprising in some ways, Pineyro said, because Menem was accused of numerous counts of corruption during his 10-year term.

“I can’t believe they would elect him again after all that he’s done to the country,” Pineyro said.

Menem has been accused of laundering money, illegally trafficking arms and generally abusing his power.

“It’s a shame that no one remembers what happened during 10 years of Menem, but he has a large political following,” Pineyro said. “The middle and upper classes were better off financially.”

Menem also drastically restructured Argentina’s economy, privatizing virtually all government-owned companies and services.

“The economy grew for once,” Marino said. “People could buy things, and the privatizations improved the quality of services.”

Under Menem’s administration, inflation went from almost 5,000 percent to single digits. On the other hand, many Argentines lost their jobs because of privatization and the gap between the rich and poor grew.

Pineyro said the rapid changes improved the economy in the short run but ultimately caused more problems.

“In the long run the economy will improve,” he said. “But I don’t believe anyone can solve the problems so fast. Changes have to be made slowly.”

Paula Chiara, a graduate student from Uruguay, said many people from her country question why Menem has been so popular despite his allegedly corrupt administration.

“I think people from Argentina remember that time and would rather go back to that time than have what they have now,” she said. “They have a great country, but they lost their country.”

Chiara said people in Uruguay have been affected by Argentina’s economic crisis and hope it will end soon.

“There have already been some problems (in Uruguay),” she said, such as a currency devaluation. “People are definitely worried about what (Argentina) is going through.”

Marino and Pineyro said Argentina’s problems will not end simply by electing a president who will restructure the economy.

“No one can improve the situation until the people change their attitudes,” Pineyro said, explaining that he thinks Argentines need to work harder.

Marino said people need to participate in political and community organizations to improve democracy and change Argentina’s direction.

“The country is not going to move forward simply with a change in president,” Marino said. “We look at a president as a great savior, but we expect too much.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]