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Hard Times for Argentine Politicians

By KEVIN GRAY
Associated Press Writer

March 11, 2002, 9:05 AM EST

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- They've been pelted with eggs, spit on and bombarded with shouts of "Thieves!" They're harassed in grocery stores, cafes and airliners. Some walk the streets with bodyguards or in disguise.
Such is life these days for politicians in Argentina.

Ground down by a 4-year-old economic slide that has shriveled bank accounts and sent unemployment soaring, Argentines are heaping abuse on their political leaders. They say government waste, graft and reckless political spending have left Argentina's economy teetering on the precipice.

"While we tumbled into chaos, our politicians built personal fortunes. Now they've sucked the system dry," lawyer Sergio Falcon said recently as hundreds of people shouted outside Congress: "Throw them all out!"

The outcry has the attention of President Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina's fifth president since December.

Duhalde has promised to eliminate wasteful government spending, reduce the size of government and cut legislators' pay. But that has done little to placate Argentines, whose protests are spreading from politicians to even Supreme Court justices, saying the entire system has corroded.

"Politics in Argentina has always been about business," one protester, Juan Carlos Sorin, said as he posted signs around Congress calling for the end of pension plans for lawmakers. "The system will never purify itself; that's why we're making life miserable for them."

Occasionally the outbursts turn violent. In January, a mob burned down the house of a congresswoman from Buenos Aires. In another incident, police had to rescue Congressman Franco Caviglia from a cafe restroom after a crowd chased him from his table.

Politicians are being heckled at grocery stores, movie theaters and gas stations -- in scenes markedly similar to the treatment often given to military officers associated with the country's past dictatorship.

"We need a cleansing of our corrupt political system," Leandro Pauletti said while hanging up "Wanted" posters with the faces of politicians
Congresswoman Mirta Rubini, whose house was burned, counters that ending Argentina's worst economic crisis in decades requires renewed faith in the country's political institutions.

"Not all politicians are thieves," she said. "I understand people feel let down, but we need to dialogue in times like these."

Many politicians are uneasy, including Carlos Menem, who was president in 1989-99. He has been conspicuously absent from Buenos Aires, spending much of his time in his rural hometown of La Rioja in western Argentina.

"What politician can walk peacefully in the streets?" he said recently. "Not a single one. Doing so would be taking a tremendous risk."

The harassment has even caught up with politicians traveling abroad. During a stopover in Madrid, Spain, Argentines awaiting a change of planes shouted obscenities at Foreign Minister Carlos Ruckauf.

Some worried lawmakers have changed their looks, opting for new hairstyles or wigs.

Even restaurants aren't welcoming them. In the western city of Mendoza, a popular restaurant recently posted a sign that read: "We happily do not serve politicians."

Press reports on the perks of political life only fuel the anger.

The newspaper La Nacion reported that members of Congress earn as much as $7,000 a month, nearly three times the average salary. They also enjoy such perks as free gasoline and insurance, resulting in $20 billion a year being spent on politicians' pay, pensions, staffs and travel, it said.

Lawmakers' standing has been further eroded the past few years by bribery scandals in the Senate and charges that politicians have abused the public health care system for millions of dollars.

"They've been able to get away with it for a long time," said Falcon, the lawyer. "Harassing them is they only way of making them take notice."

Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press
 
 

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