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Argentina Congress Names Senate Leader as Interim President - 2001-12-21


Argentina's Congress holds a special session later Friday to officially accept the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua, and designate Senate head Federico Ramon Puerta as provisional President. Mr. Puerta is expected to hold office only briefly, until Congress can convene and determine the future course of the country.

Life is slowly returning to normal in Buenos Aires following the protests and rioting Thursday that forced President de la Rua to step down.

Now, the attention turns to the Congress, which will designate Senate leader Puerta of the opposition Peronist party as provisional President. Mr. Puerta, a 50-year-old career politician, will only hold the office for 48 hours. Under the Constitution, his job is to convene a special session of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies to choose an interim President. Constitutional experts say the Congress can decide either to have the person selected finish out Mr. de la Rua's term until December, 2003, or limit his term to 90 days, so that new elections can be called. Under the Constitution, the interim President can come from the ranks of the legislature or one of Argentina's 24 provincial governors.

Mr. De la Rua, who spoke to reporters Friday for the first time since submitting his resignation letter, called for a smooth and orderly constitutional transition. He said he will let history judge his presidency. "I did what was necessary and what I thought was best for the country, in which the dire state of the economy did not permit many options," he said.

Mr. De la Rua, who took office two years ago, inherited a government that was almost bankrupt, because of corruption and overspending under the previous administration of President Carlos Menem. Mr. Menem had succeeded in his first term in the early 90's in ending hyperinfaltion and promoting growth through a currency convertibility plan, that pegged the peso at a one-to-one rate to the dollar. But by the time he left office in December, 1999, the country was in the midst of a recession and the peso was widely considered to be overvalued.

Mr. De la Rua tried to implement various economic plans, but none succeeded in bringing about an economic recovery. Instead, unemployment grew and Argentina faces default on its massive $132 billion debt. The situation continued to deteriorate until this week, when looting erupted at supermarkets in various cities including Buenos Aires. Mr. De la Rua declared a state of siege to quell rioting, but the violence continued - and only tapered off after he resigned.

The new government will have to deal with these problems, and there is talk among many Peronist party legislators that the new government should convert its debt into pesos, and then proceed with an orderly devaluation. Many Argentines may accept this, but it is not clear how such a plan - if implemented - would be received by the international financial community. In the meantime, Argentina's central bank has declared a bank holiday for Friday, telling financial institutions they can only open for limited transactions to pay salaries and pensions.

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