At the windows of this city's troubled store-front businesses -- its dress shops, its perfumeries, its small grocery stores -- metal shutters clattered to the sidewalk last month as part of a nationwide protest that was unprecedented in Argetina's five years of repressive military rule.
Throughout the sweltering heat of the afternoon and evening, many Rosario businessmen shut their stores and pasted small blue and white signs (the Argentine national colors) in the window: Closed -- national DAY TO CALL FOR A CHANGE.
With shopkeepers in other cities closing or symbolically turning out their lights, farmers parading their tractors through country towns and union leaders pledging their support, the businessmen's Day of Complaint was the latest battle cry in what has become a conflict of major proportions over the policies of Economics Minister Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz.
"Argentina is a volcano getting ready to blow," said Hugo Pasqualis, a Rosario cigarette wholesaler who helped organize the businessmen's shutdown. "All that the guerrillas failed to do with their bombs and their violence Martinez de Hoz has done in five years of his tranquility."
Martinez de Hoz came into office, his path cleared by the 1976 military coup, with the blessings of such weighty organizations as the Chase Manhattan Bank. He presented his plan as an ambitious Argentine version of the "free-market" policies that are changing the economic picture of lower South American. His plan promised to control inflation, cut the state sector, "open up" the economy to international competition by reducing protective tariffs and lead Argentina to a new era of confidence, efficiency and stability.
Five years later, as Martinez de Hoz prepares to step down, here are a few glimpses of the new Argentina:
The narrow Buenos Aires street of exchange shops, crowded with long lines of anxious Argentines waiting to convert their pesos into dollars.
A lean factory worker pleading the case of his laid-off coworkers in a 15-minute Vatican audience with Pope John Paul II.
A grocer, when hearing about the 10 percent devaluation that was supposed to ease worry and help slow speculation, closing his store just long enough to mark everything up by 11 percent.
The growth in the country's gross national products, according to the U.N. Econonic Commission for Latin America, was the lowest last year of any Latin American country except El Salvador. The Feb. 20 newspapers carried reports of the 35th banking institution collapse since 1977. The annual interest rate on 30-day savings deposits has risen in the last month to 100 percent from 60 percent, and businessmen are being charged as much as 180 percent annually on loans that must be renegotiated every 30 to 60 days.
With Lt. Gen. Roberto Viola's presidential inauguration one month away, the economy is clearly the most volatile issue facing the new government. National industrialists are furious; fruit and poultry farmers say they are being driven out of business, and labor leaders say things have never been this bad for the worker.
In an underpopulated country that for years has boasted about its near-zero unemployment rate, the Rosario businessmen decided against a public protest gathering because they feared violence from the 20,000 men they estimate are without jobs in their area.
"I think the workers who have been enduring this situation are very close to losing their tempers," said a metallurgical worker who was recently laid off from his job at a financially troubled plant outside Buenos Aires. "People are taking their children out of school to sell newspapers. . . . With only five years of this government, it has created a disaster in industry, a total disaster in which thousands of our companions are out of work. And they aren't finding new work.
"The government policy talks of efficient factories with a higher percentage of productivity -- this is a total lie, because companies that just improved technically have closed in this country."
Even Somos, a firmly progovernment magazine that has supported the government on practically every other major policy issue, is sounding alarmed. In an "Open Letter to the Government" last week headlined on a stark black cover, Somos' editors wrote, "This formidable [economic] project, built up over the last five years, appears to be falling apart, at least in the eyes of the man on the street. And this sensation has produced, in only two or three weeks, an infamous time in our history."
Martinez de Hoz, who declined to be interviewed, has grown increasingly defensive in recent public appearances. Although Argentina's inflation rate is still one of the highest in the world, the official figure -- said by critics to be unrealistically low -- now stands at 88 percent. That rate, Martinez de Hoz points out, is considerably reduced from 1976 when it reached a year-end total of 440 percent.
And he insists that the program can work if given more time.
"We are not going through a 'black December,'" Martinez de Hoz said in a pre-Christmas speech to businessmen. "We are going through a stage in the economic history of Argentina that began in 1976, and the legacy of which is now irreversible."
A former central bank economist who supports Martinez de Hoz added, "If you have an addict of six months of herion, you can cure him in maybe three months. But if you have an addict of 35 years, you need maybe 10 years to get him completely out of that sickness."
Since 1976, the economic team has approached the Argentine economy as if it were profoundly sick and needed a drastic cure. The illness, as these planners saw it, was the highly controlled economy largely developed after World War II under president Juan Peron.
Argentina entered the 20th century as an exporter of raw materials. Britain and Western Europe bought Argentine wheat, beef leather and wool -- leaving Argentine, from early nationalists' perspective, completely dependent on those foreign markets for its economic well-being.
Peron, whose power base was the massive, mostly immigrant working class, transformed Argentina with a vision of a country that would never again have to rely on the outside world. As Europe rebuilt after the war and Argentina sold food by the ton to ravaged countries, Peron used profits from agricultural export to build a vast and essentially state-subsidized industrial sector.
He protected the industry with high tariffs that made imported goods prohibitively expensive -- and sometimes just prohibited. He demanded high salaries, health care, state-supported vacation spots and generous pension programs for the workers. He created what Peronists still think of as a humane haven for the industrial working class -- and what anti-Peronists describe as a corrupt, deficit-ridden system that amounted to a free ride for inefficient industry.
The central bank set limits on interest rates, so that during the numerous periods of high inflation interest rates on business loans were lower than the inflation rate. This enabled businessmen essentially to make money off their loans.
"You were able to make bananas in Tierra del Fuego," said a former economic team member. "You had subsidized credit, you had tax exemptions, you had incredibly high tariff protection. . . . So our principal goals were to open the economy, to modernize the country and increase competition in order to be more efficient and to give consumers the opportunity of choosing."
In the course of its tenure, the economic team held back wages, removed price controls, began dismantling protective tariffs and freed the financial sector to offer and charge whatever interest the market would bear. The team also tried to maintain stability by devaluing the peso very gradually, according to a fixed monthly schedule of "mini-devaluations."
That meant that every month the dollar could buy a slightly greater number of pesos -- so that an exporter of wheat, for example, gained a few more pesos from his dollar-priced wheat sales. But since the peso was rapidly losing value because of Argentine inflation, that same wheat exporter needed as much as twice as many pesos to make his purchases in the Argentine market. So his spending power was supposed to decrease, and this, among other measures, was supposed to be anti-inflationary.
The inflation rate came down, but not by very much -- it ran 176 percent in 1977, 175 percent in 1978, 139 percent in 1979. By early 1981 many economists believed the peso was considerably overvalued -- meaning a dollar bought far fewer pesos than it should have -- and Martinez de Hoz was under great pressure to order a major devaluation of the peso.
The economic team refused to devalue the currency. Its members argued that to do so would be inflationary since it would release millions of new pesos into the economy. But the foreign reserves were dropping, apparently because people were buying up dollars. On Feb. 2, the Argentine peso was devalued by 10 percent.
The idea, according to an Economic Ministry spokesman, was that once the peso was actually devalued, people and business would stop worrying that it was about to happen and would stop buying dollars.
"In theory, it sounded reasonable," the spokesman said. "In practice, it didn't work that way . . . It had precisely the opposite effect."
What the devaluation did, in essence, was to convince a lot of people that the Argentine government did not know what it was doing. The exchange houses jammed with people rushing to buy more dollars -- just in case something else happened. The big exchange houses were selling $7 million to $9 million a day each. The reserves began to drop even faster.
"People are nervous wrecks," said an American banker a few days later. "I've talked to a dozen different bankers this week, and nobody understands it."
Lack of long-term planning and predictability has been one of the banking and international business community's biggest complaints under the Martinez de Hoz economy. More important, they say, the minister has failed to really cut the state sector, which remains enormous. Much of it is in the hands of military men who insist that their companies and factories, turning out everything from weapons to canned food, must remain state-owned on the grounds of "national security."
Dismantling the state would mean higher unemployment, but that is something the international bankers say Argentina must endure. They believe a revitalized private industry would eventually hire many workers.
Nationalists, such as the angry Rosario businessmen, have a very different picture of the country's problems. They say Martinez de Hoz has created a depressed, doomed productive sector where the only real moneymakers are the newly freed banks and those who speculate with the exorbitant interest rate.
"We work with the middle class, people who live on salaries," said the owner of a Rosario perfume shop. "The husband is fired. Suddenly they have nothing more to spend. The people can't pay you. You have to let them pay on credit over five months. So where do get your money? You have to go to the bank -- paying 15 percent a month."
The flood of cheaper imports, nationalists insist, is creating a country that benefits only a small class of people whose interests are tied to those international companies.
"We don't need the best suit in the world," Pasqualis said. "We need a suit made by Argentines."