Despite tight restrictions on press and public criticism of Argentina's military junta, at least one Cabinet member, Economy Minister Joe Martinez de Hoz, has become fair game for critics ranging from the media to the man in the street.
Even such widely differing publications as clandestine guerrilla newsletters and military mouthpieces are participating in the campaign. The economy minister, whose long, thin face and protruding ears are a caricaturists' delight, has been variously depicted recently as a mouse, a rat and a voracious wolf.
The fact that such potshots would not even be comtemplated against the rest of the extremely touchy government, let alone be allowed to go unpunished, means two things here. First, there is serious and widewpread economic dissatisfaction in Argentina. Second, the junta prefers to use the criticism as a safety valve for other, unpermitted complaints.
Virtually every sector of the 24 million population has a gripe against the minister. While industry resents a gradual lowering of the protective trade barriers imposed by previous governments, local and state governments complain about cutbacks in federal funding. But the most volatile and potentially most dangerous critic is the working class.
The workers complain that real wages are frozen at levels as low as 60 percent of what they were two years ago. At the same time, long-standing price controls have been almost completely lifted, and prices of every thing from milk to refrigerators sprial upward with dizzying speed.
October's cost-of-living increase was 12.5 percent and inflation is expected to hit 175 percent this year.
While parts of the world decry human rights violations here, President Carter worries about Argentina's nuclear program, the junta knows that the real threat to its power lies in the rising price of beef, the staple of the Argentina diet.
A pound of beef that cost 150 pesos in May now 400 pesos. With the peso currently 540 to a dollar, the beef price still looks low from abroad. For the average worker, however, whose monthly 70,000 peso wage remains the same as in May when the peso was 345 to the dollar, it is devastating. In dollars that wage is $130 per month.
The official minimum wage, which many workers earn, is less than half that figure.
Several weeks ago workers in at least 10 industries defied military imposed anti-strike laws by striking for higher wages. At least three workers were reported killed in the strikes, the most comprehensive of which was a several day shutdown of rail and subway services.
Temporarily subdued by military intervention and threats of widespread firings - along with a wage increase that amounted to less than half of that demanded - the once mighty labor unions vow that the fight has only begun.
It was the strength of those unions, built on large-scale fatherbedding and artificially high wages, the Economy Ministry says, that helped bring near economic catastrophe less than two years ago.
Under the populist, union-backed governments of the late Juan D. Peron, the state took over hundreds of failing and non-competitive industries, erected some of the highest import tariffs in the world and, by printing vast quantities of depreciated currency managed to raise working class wages to levels most economists now agree were far beyond what this semideveloped nation could afford to pay.
The result was a 1975 inflation rate near 1,000 percent, and a balance-of-payments deficit of nearly $1 billion by the time the military took over in March 1976.
Martinez de Hoz, the only civilian member of the Cabinet, began a slow return to a free market system, lowering tariffs to allow inefficient industries to die a natural death and to increase competitive spirit in those remaining, selling off state-owned businesses and freeing prices.
The tactics were essentially the same as those used in Chile, which found itself in similar economic straits when the military took over in late 1973. While Chile has turned its deficits into surpluses, however, the price of its often droconian methods has been massive unemployment and widespread failure of domestic industry.
Martinez de Hoz has chosen a freemarket route he calls "gradualism" - a tenous and ever-changing balance between economic control and freedom that has traded unemployment for low wages and has succeeded in making no one, except perhaps the banking community, happy.
Interest rates are another previously controlled sector that Martinez de Hoz has freed. With exchange and inflation rates galopping, banks and financial houses are now charging monthly interest that compounds to around 259 percent a year. Actually, according to a bank director, "we are only lending short - most loans are only for 30 days," to avoid getting caught short when prices rise.
Similarly, few are interested in capital investment when savings on a 30-day deposit can earn 12 percent at the most conservative bank.
"Everybody has rights here," said one union leader, "except us. The businessmen can go right to the minister and protest things," the banks are free to raise their rates. To keep inflation from getting even worse, however, Martinez de Hoz had held back on freeing wage controls.
Neither are the unions free to organize, bargain or protest. All of their official activities have been suspended since the 1976 coup.
Most financial experts applaud what Martinez de Hoz has done. They point to the $1.4 billion balance-of-payments surplus for the first nine months of this year. The government, said an economist, is clearly playing for time, hoping that the labor situation will not completely explode before prices begin to right themselves and the promised benefits trickle down to the workers.
To keep the lid on, the junta has loudly blamed worker discontent on agitation by alleged leftist terrorist infiltration in the factories - a not-too-subtle hint that any more labor trouble will bring the same no-holds-barred government response as did terrorism itself.
For now, the strikes have ended, and most complaining sectors are using the only outlet available to them - criticizing Martinez de Hoz. The pastime has become so popular that even military rivalries are vented through it.
Several weeks ago, the official navy newspaper, the province of ambitiuos junta member Adm. Emil Massera, called the economy minister "insensitive." Most informed political observers translated the criticism as a blast at one of Martinez de Hoz's strongest supporters - President and army head, Gen. Jorge Videla.
The Economy Ministry appears bewildered by the attacks and has taken the air of a camp under siege.
"We didn't invent these economic rules," said an official. "Argentina is always looking for magic solutions, without considering the cost. Nobody is inconvenienced, nobody pays. It's impossible."