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Economic Woes Wound Argentina's National Pride - 2003-08-19

Argentines have traditionally viewed their nation as separate and, in many ways, superior to other Latin American nations, thanks to higher living standards and educational accomplishments - not to mention historical and cultural links with Europe.

Today, with Argentina's finances in ruin and unemployment nearing 25 percent, many Argentines say they no longer cling to romantic notions about their country constituting a chunk of European prosperity within South America.

Fifty years ago, Argentina's gross domestic product rivaled that of France. Bountiful agricultural exports generated foreign revenue streams that were the envy of Argentina's neighbors and helped finance public educational and health care systems that were unmatched in the region. Conventional wisdom held that, among Latin American nations, Argentina had the best prospects for one day emerging as a world economic power.

But times have changed, and Argentines are now watching helplessly as their country endures hardships that would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago.

"The phenomenon of homeless people used to be viewed as a problem of the United States, or of some other place - but not of Buenos Aires, says Political scientist Carlos Escude teaches at Di Tella University in Buenos Aires. "Now it is definitely a phenomenon of Buenos Aires."

Office worker Blanca Mauro stands at a street corner, unable to get to work. An unruly throng of protesters known as "Piqueteros", or picketers, blocks the street, demanding that the government provide them jobs and a basic standard of living.

Ms. Mauro watches the scene in front of her and shakes her head.

"We [Argentines] used to think we were a super-developed country that was the best of South America," she says. "But now, we realize we are just like other countries that suffer crises and where there is hunger."

To this day, many native-born residents of Buenos Aires can trace their family lineage directly to Spain, Italy or elsewhere in Europe. Some even maintain dual-nationality with a European nation, and point to it as a matter of pride. Ask an Argentine what language he speaks and he is likely to say "Castellano" or Castilian - a specific dialect of Spain - rather than the all-encompassing "Espanol" or Spanish.

Sociologist Graciela Romer says Argentina's status as a nation of largely "pure-bred" European descendants has engendered a certain conceit and an expectation of national progress and prosperity. She says the country's economic woes have struck a dissonant chord with Argentina's historically-lofty collective self-image.

"The people of Buenos Aires never considered themselves to be Latin American," Ms. Romer says. "They always looked to Europe as a reference point, and viewed Europeans rather than Latin Americans as their kin. Argentina used to be the land of promise, and now it is a Third World country. Argentines have suffered a grave wound to their sense of pride and self-esteem."

Researcher Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington says any conceit Argentines may have indulged could, until recently, be justified.

"I don't think that the perception the Argentines had that they were better than their neighbors was wrong, historically. I think they did have a higher standard of living and a much higher level of education," he said. "It is a country that had important economic and cultural links with Europe. But two things have happened to undermine that [perception]. One is the entry of a lot of immigrants into Argentina from Bolivia and Peru and Paraguay - changing the cultural and racial make-up of the country. The other has been the departure of talented professionals, because you now have one-tenth of the population living outside the country. And that has led to a decline in the quality of human capital."

But Mr. Falcoff adds that the erosion of Argentina's image may be as hard to swallow as the lamentable state of their nation's finances.