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Turmoil in Argentina is like something from Third World



Published: Tue, January 1, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Argentina has seen the departure of its third president in 10 days, its economy is in collapse, scores of its citizens are dead in rioting and looting, and its banks are virtually under siege.

It is a scene someone might expect to see in any Third World country when living conditions become intolerable. Except Argentina is not a Third World country. It has a strong history of democracy, and it is the richest, most industrialized nation in South America.

Reason to worry: The economic collapse of Argentina is cause for concern in the rest of the industrialized world, especially in the United States. A nation cannot default on more than $130 billion in public debt without that action reverberating throughout the financial world.

But more than that, in a fragile worldwide economy, other nations must watch carefully what is happening in Argentina, study carefully what led to its current state of turmoil.

Much of the Argentinean debt is held by Americans who invested in what was being called the "Latin miracle" in the 1990s, when free trade and privatization reigned supreme. The Argentine peso was tied to the dollar in a risky venture that, rather than stabilize the currency, resulted in a largely overvalued peso.

The tactic ended domestic hyperinflation, as it was meant to do, but required enormous borrowing of dollars. Eventually it could borrow no more -- precipitating default and the current economic an political crisis.

Big gamble: Argentina gambled and it lost. Its people lost, because large amounts of its debt were held internally by private investors and pension funds. Outside investors -- those drawn to the "miracle" -- have lost. The economists who thought they had in Argentina a perfect model for a new world economy have lost. About the only ones who may win in the short term are the lawyers who represent the outside investors trying to recover dimes on their dollars.

The long-term winners will be those nations that recognize Argentina's mistakes and manage to avoid them in the future. That is small consolation to Argentineans.




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