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Argentines Banking on Economic Upturn After Election - 2003-03-21

There are signs of improvement in Argentina after more than a year of economic crisis, but, much will depend on the outcome of the upcoming election.

The streets of Buenos Aires are full of foreign tourists these days. Many of them have been drawn here by the bargain prices on such Argentine products as jewelry, leather goods and handicrafts. The price declines are a result of the economic crisis and the devaluation of the peso currency. The peso was one-to-one with the U.S. dollar a little over a year ago, but it is now traded at a little over three to a dollar.

U.S. tourist Allison came down to Buenos Aires from Connecticut with a college friend to shop and sample some of Argentina's fine cuisine.

"We have been getting a lot of artisan crafts and stuff like that, it is cheaper, and jewelry," she said. "I know you can get a leather jacket now a lot cheaper. But the food is so much cheaper. The food is incredible. We have been eating a lot."

The influx of tourists from the United States, Europe and other Latin American nations has been welcomed by the people of Argentina, especially those who make their livelihood in retail shops, hotels, restaurants and other businesses that benefit directly from tourism.

Tourists are not the only ones taking advantage of the bargain prices in Argentina. Filmmakers have also been coming to Buenos Aires to make films set in Europe. Buenos Aires has often been called the "Paris of Latin America" because so many of its buildings, monuments and street scenes resemble those of a European city. But filming here is several times cheaper than it would be in the real Paris.

Taxi driver Roberto says the tourist boom and the coming presidential election, the first round of which will be held on April 27, bode well for his country. He says things are getting better and that a political change will help set a new course for the nation. He says he and most of his customers, friends and family are optimistic about the future.

Economists and political analysts say a change in government policy that moves the country away from debt and into stronger growth could result from the election. Some of the candidates are presenting detailed plans on how they would do this.

Political analyst Carlos Gervasoni says whoever wins should start by revamping the economic strategy the country has followed for many decades.

"This is a good opportunity to change the strategy of economic development that has been traditionally in the direction of emphasizing and protecting the internal market," he said. "The fact that we now have a very high exchange rate, a very advantageous exchange rate for exports, gives us a good opportunity to put Argentina in the international market as a major exporter and to change the economic strategy to an outward-oriented economic strategy."

Such ideas are likely to be the focus of vigorous debate in the weeks ahead as the presidential campaign unfolds. There are also wild cards to consider, however. The war in the Persian Gulf could damage the worldwide economy and dampen demand for Argentina's products. An increase in terrorist threats could also discourage potential tourists from flying.

But Mr. Gervasoni and other analysts say these are factors beyond anyone's control. They believe this is the best time to work on a new approach to Argentina's economic development so as to avoid another crisis farther down the road.