Argentine President Raul Alfonsin unexpectedly fired two top members of his economic team tonight in a shuffle observers here said reflected growing official concern over Argentina's failure to pull out of its downward economic spiral.
Presidential press spokesman Jose Ignacio Lopez said Alfonsin had accepted the resignations of Economy Minister Bernardo Grinspun and Central Bank President Enrique Garcia Vasquez.
Lopez said Grinspun would be replaced by Harvard-educated Planning Secretary Juan Sourrouille, 44, while the bank portfolio would be given to 63-year-old Internal Commerce Secretary Alfredo Concepcion. Officials said tonight that, despite Grinspun's successful negotiations on a stabilization program with the International Monetary Fund late last year, growing domestic woes, political infighting and the minister's own cantankerous style contributed to his downfall.
Sourrouille, a tough-minded, soft-spoken technocrat, won praise here recently following the announcement of a five-year economic plan drawn up by his department.
The "Sourrouille plan," as it is known here, is designed to combat Argentina's skyrocketing inflation (more than 750 percent a year), promote growth and raise its employment levels -- currently at an historic low -- through an emphasis on support for export industries.
Top officials of the ruling Radical Party said tonight that the country's continuing economic morass, and the growing perception of Grinspun as a political liability, forced Alfonsin to make the dramatic, and personally painful, move.
Officials here pointed out that Alfonsin heretofore had resisted suggestions that he jettison Grinspun, a close personal friend and political ally for more than 25 years. Sources within the presidential palace said Alfonsin communicated the decision to Grinspun through Lopez and Public Works Minister Roque Carranza at a meeting early this afternoon.
Top party leaders said Grinspun was a likely pick to become Argentina's ambassador to the United Nations, replacing current Ambassador Carlos Muniz.
Radical leaders said the fact that Grinspun's much-criticized performance did not lead to his dismissal earlier reflected his ties to Alfonsin, and their common political roots in the reform faction of the Radical Party.
Alfonsin, these sources said, moved only when faced with a growing split in the ranks of the Radicals over Grinspun's handling of the economy, and his erratic personal style.
Party leaders are worried that Argentina's flat economic performance would lead to a serious reversal in Radical fortunes in parliamentary elections later this year. Despite Alfonsin's objection, the Radical National Committee (the group's highest council), in an unusual display of independence, planned to call Grinspun before it this week to explain, in the words of member Adolfo Gass, "how we are going to get out of this mess."
Another factor in Alfonsin's decision to oust Grinspun was said to be press reports of a scuffle Saturday night between Grinspun and an unidentified man at a casino at the Atlantic beach resort of Mar Del Plata. After being provoked by the man, Grinspun reportedly shouted he was going to "smash" his tormentor's face and the melee was broken up by his security guards.
Officials here said they were worried about public reaction to the incident, coming at a time the government is presiding over sensitive wage-price talks with leaders of labor and industry in an effort to get both parts to accept severe austerity measures.
More puzzling was the firing of Garcia Vasquez, whose orthodox monetary policies had made him a favorite of Argentina's foreign creditors and a frequent sparring partner with the more populist Grinspun. Garcia Vasquez has been in poor health, however, and underwent open-heart surgery last year.
Concepcion, his replacement, a respected Radical Party elder -- he was industry minister in the short-lived Democratic government of President Arturo Illia -- is believed to share many of his successor's views.