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Argentina's Interim President Faces Major Challenges - 2001-12-23

Argentina's newly selected interim president, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, is a sunny optimist who compares himself to Franklin Roosevelt, the American president who restored hope and confidence when the United States was suffering from a deep economic depression in the 1930s. Mr. Rodriguez Saa faces dealing with a similarly grim economic situation in Argentina - problems that led to the sudden downfall last week of ex-President Fernando de la Rua.

Mr. Rodriguez Saa, who was chosen as interim president by Congress Sunday after a marathon session, is a 54-year-old lawyer who has governed the western province of San Luis for the past 18 years. A long-time member of Argentina's dominant Peronist party, he is known for his colorful and populist rhetoric.

As governor, he brought progress and industry to the province, reviving the mining industry, while building highways, houses for the poor, and improving the school system. San Luis province has low unemployment and one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. These qualities are needed in Argentina as a whole, which is mired in a 42-month recession that shows no sign of ending soon. Unemployment is at 18 percent, and the South American nation is struggling to meet payments on its huge $132 billion public debt. Many foreign creditors already consider Argentina in technical default.

It was this combination of problems that brought about the downfall of President Fernando de la Rua last week, after two years in office. Widespread rioting and protests, which left almost 30 people dead, forced his resignation.

Mr. de la Rua was elected in October 1999, amid widespread optimism that he would lead the country out of its economic morass, and end waste and corruption that had depleted the Argentine treasury. But analyst Felipe Noguera says Mr. de la Rua did not know how to govern, adding this should be a requirement for his successor. "I think that power is a job that needs to be done; I mean power or presidency are verbs, not nouns," he explained. "It is not a space that you just occupy. They thought that the presidency, you know, is an office to be held, not a job to be done, and that's just not the way it is. President de la Rua saw himself as being president, he didn't see himself as exercising the presidency."

It remains to be seen if interim President Rodriguez Saa has these qualities. Even though he will only hold office until after a new president is elected in March, the career politician pledged Sunday to make the decisions necessary to try to find a way out of Argentina's economic crisis.

Among these measures is a suspension of Argentina's foreign debt payments, which is aimed at freeing up money to shore up the Treasury, and for programs to help the many Argentines impoverished by the recession. His announcement Sunday to suspend foreign debt payments brought a standing ovation in the Congress. Such a move would amount to a default, marking an end to months in which Argentina attempted to satisfy its creditors abroad. The move was widely expected and the new president said he will ask the international community for time and understanding to get Argentina's fiscal house in order.

Mr. Rodrigues Saa, who once said he is an optimist like U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, will need all his political skills to achieve this and to lead the country through this difficult period. Unlike his dour and austere predecessor, Argentines may welcome the change from Mr. de la Rua, who bragged during his presidential campaign two years about being "boring," in contrast to his predecessor, the flamboyant Carlos Menem.

Whatever happens, Mr. Rodrigues Saa, who was embroiled in a sex scandal in his home province, is not likely to be accused of being boring during his expected short tenure in office. His engaging manner and charm, known as being "simpatico" in Spanish, may help Argentines weather this crisis, which has ruined a nation that once boasted of having the highest standard of living in Latin America.