Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde addressed a joint session of Congress Friday as thousands of his supporters filled the plaza outside in a show of support for the controversial leader. Left-wing opposition leaders boycotted the speech to protest what they call the "illegitimacy" of a president appointed by Congress and not elected by the people.
In his first major address to Congress since he was sworn in by a legislative assembly January 1, President Duhalde arrived amid much fanfare and with a full, military escort Friday to the cheers of thousands of supporters. In a controversial decision, the supporters were bused in from the province of Buenos Aires, a Duhalde strong hold, to show political support for the troubled president.
Once inside, as expected, Mr. Duhalde defended his administration's economic policy. In particular, the end of an 11-year old currency board that saw the sharp devaluation of the peso currency and the unhitching of Argentina's economy from the U.S. dollar.
Mr. Duhalde also had sharp words for those sectors that have criticized his economic policy and have called for the dollarization of the economy and early elections. He said those calling for the dollarization, among them former president Carlos Menem, are the same people who had exploited the Argentine economy and citizens over the past decade.
The president highlighted two major achievements of his fledgling administration. The first, a new pact between the nation and its 23 provinces that he called one of the basic building blocks for a new country.
The president also highlighted the achievements of the National Dialogue Table, which has brought together various business, labor, political and social sectors over the past 45 days under the auspices of the Catholic Church and the United Nations Development Program to discuss solutions to the severe crisis in Argentina.
One of the group's recommendations touched on judicial reform and Mr. Duhalde said his administration would carry out such reform.
Mr. Duhalde said he would focus on fighting unemployment, hunger and poverty by upping the number of federal job subsidies from 1 million to 2 million.
The president pointed out the difficulties of guaranteeing social peace when the gap between the rich and poor had grown by 70 percent over the past decade but promised to do so.
He said "the only guarantee for peace is social justice." Mr. Duhalde promised to do his best for Argentina to bring about a social, economic and political renaissance. However, with international lenders still withholding aid and social and political tensions still high in Argentina, the president will have his work cut out for him.
Next week the Senate takes up debate of the 2002 budget, which the lower house passed late Thursday night, and a mission from the International Monetary Fund will be in town to study the possibility of fresh loan money.