Argentina's Senate Leader, Puertas, Takes Power as Interim President


By: Associated Press
The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2001


BUENOS AIRES -- Former Senate leader Ramon Puertas formally took over as caretaker president Friday, a day after the resignation of Fernando de la Rua.

After two days of antigovernment unrest around the country that left 22 people dead, supermarkets and homes ransacked, and Mr. de la Rua's government in chaos, Argentina was relatively calm Friday morning. Protests had largely subsided the night before, though more looting was reported Friday.

Mr. Puerta will serve as interim president until a special legislative assembly decides whether to call new elections within months.

Mr. Puerta said Friday he wished only to hold the presidency temporarily until the Congress decides whether to call new elections. "I've never held a post for which I have not been elected," Mr. Puerta told reporters. "But I will fulfill my duties to the republic in these very difficult moments."

Speaking at the Casa Rosada, or Government House, Friday morning, Mr. de la Rua lashed out at opposition party members, Peronists, for failing to join him in a national unity government -- a decision that hastened his political downfall.

"The Peronists made a mistake," he said. The opposition rejected his request Thursday as angry and hungry Argentines around the country protested and looted.

Mr. de la Rua said he wanted his last act in power to be the canceling of a state of emergency he imposed Wednesday as the crisis began to boil over.

The 30-day state of emergency, or state of siege, gave authorities the right to make arrests without a court order and prohibited unauthorized public gatherings. It was the first time in 11 years that an Argentine president has enforced such a decree.

Wearing a dark suit, Mr. de la Rua returned to the Casa Rosada hours after signing his resignation late Thursday and flying from the government palace in a helicopter.

The rioting and looting that subsided Thursday made the streets of Buenos Aires looked like a battleground. Fires smoldered and smoke curled over the Plaza de Mayo outside the ornate pink government palace, where thousands gathered to vent anger over the economy and call for Mr. de la Rua's ouster.

Argentina's faltering economy now awaits the hands of a caretaker government led by the party founded by strongman Juan Peron in the 1940s. The Peronists will try to tame a crisis that has left the country perilously close to defaulting on its $132 billion debt burden.

The nation's largest political grouping, the Peronists, control Congress and many of the party's leaders said they favored calling new elections in two to three months.

Until then, Mr. Puerta faces a tough job. Growth, production and business confidence are plummeting, and unemployment has topped 18%.

Many analysts now predict the new government will likely end the Argentine peso's one-to-one peg with the dollar, in place since 1991. While it helped Argentina vanquish hyperinflation more than a decade ago, it is blamed for making Argentine exports uncompetitive abroad.

Argentine shares skyrocketed 17.5% on the Merval Index Thursday as investors sought to protect their funds from a feared devaluation.

Any devaluation of the peso could mean instant bankruptcy for thousands of Argentines, along with many of the country's largest businesses. More than 80% of contracts and debts are denominated in the dollar.

Before Mr. de la Rua's resignation, a senior White House official said the Bush administration would wait for the dust to settle before deciding what, if any, action to take to help Argentina recover.