The cheating was marginal at first, involving isolated cases that were easy for the government to ignore. But lately, in defiance of President Raul Alfonsin's austerity program, instances of prices creeping up and of employers sneaking wage increases to workers to avoid unrest and retain skilled labor have multiplied.
Argentine officials continue either to look the other way or, at times, even to wink at the violations in recognition that no lid could stay firmly fixed on this country's fitful economy.
But sometime soon, the Alfonsin administration, which has restored a measure of economic stability by drastic moves that have become a world model for fighting hyperinflation, knows that it will have to do something to keep its success from unraveling.
Nearly six months after the government suddenly imposed tight controls -- including a wage-price freeze, a curb on monetary growth, limits on public spending and the introduction of a new currency, the austral, to replace an abjectly depreciated peso -- Argentines are waiting for the second act.
As monthly rises in the cost of living have narrowed sharply from more than 30 percent in June to about 2 or 3 percent now, the president's popularity has soared. In congressional elections Nov. 3, voters handed Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union a solid victory, despite the sting of austerity.
Having proved that conservative economics can work here -- and yield political dividends -- Alfonsin had been expected to encourage measures to boost productivity: a scaling down of state-owned enterprises, an expansion and modernization of private industry and an overhaul of financial structures. So far, though, no specific new plans have been announced.
One reason for the delay is the economic pain and consequent political price the projected measures entail. Although average incomes have fallen roughly 30 percent in real terms during the past year, many Argentines, particularly in the bloated public sector, have retained their jobs. Moreover, studies show that due to the drop in inflation, the real purchasing power of Argentines has risen in recent months.
Political resistance to additional austerity measures is outspoken, coming not just from labor and left-wing opposition groups but also from some within Alfonsin's left-center Radical Party. These same groups oppose such liberalizing moves as lowering protective tariffs and opening the country to foreign investment.
Occasionally, Alfonsin has found himself blocked by members of his Cabinet. Public Works Minister Conrado Storani, for instance, a Radical, has foiled the president's efforts to make good on a vow given in a speech in Houston last March to permit foreign firms to explore and exploit Argentine oil reserves.
A draft oil contract drawn up by Storani attracted few foreign bidders and sparked many objections about allegedly generous prerogatives granted the state oil company and the limited returns afforded would-be foreign investors. The contract is being revised.
Reflecting the thinking among the Radical party's old guard, a number of whom resent the nonparty technocrats now in charge of government economic policy, Interior Minister Antonio Troccoli pointedly declared last month that the Alfonsin administration would not submit to the freeing of exchange rates or the slashing of import duties.
Troccoli's remarks were characterized by Argentine newspapers as a retort to U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who was visiting at the time. But diplomatic sources said the American banker had no disagreement with Alfonsin and senior economic planners during several days of talks.
Volcker did observe that time was running out for the Argentines. "If they are short of anything, it's time," he told reporters.
U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary David Mulford said in a speech to local business leaders, "Wage and price controls, while important psychologically, have only a very short useful life and cannot substitute for fundamental economic adjustment."
Volcker and Mulford had come to explore how the United States could help bankroll Argentina's structural adjustment. Volcker had gone to bat for the austral plan during the project's inception, lobbying a skeptical Jacques de Larosiere, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, when the then-secret plan was first outlined in Washington in April.
Now the United States has its own interest in capitalizing on the program's success and Argentina's new-found stability. Ever since Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III unveiled a $29 billion plan in October to stimulate the economies of debtor nations, the United States has been searching for major countries willing to adopt the structural reforms necessary to qualify for the loans.
Argentina had seemed a natural test case, and public expectations of a deal were high as Mulford, followed by Volcker, arrived in November.
But no accords were announced, and diplomatic sources said afterward that the American officials had come merely to get a firsthand view.
Explaining Alfonsin's inclination to proceed more slowly than some foreign creditors might like, Carlos Helbling, a prominent Buenos Aires businessman, said: "I see a president who has decided to proceed with his program but in the Argentine way, which is not necessarily to the rhythm of Volcker or de Larosiere."
Argentine commentators took the opportunity of the official U.S. visits to spell out objections to the Baker Plan. Echoing criticisms being made by other Latin Americans, the Argentines said the proposals fail to deal with factors underlying the region's $360 billion debt -- notably, high real interest rates, low commodity prices and protectionism in export markets.
In a joint communique after Volcker had gone, Alfonsin and President Jose Sarney of Brazil called the U.S. plan "a step forward" but said "other types of measures" were needed, including lower interest rates and easier trade access for Latin American countries to the economies of developed countries.
While suspense mounts over what the next phase of Alfonsin's economic program will bring, Argentine officials have signaled an intention to keep wage and price controls largely in place.
But according to a study published last month by the Buenos Aires-based Latin American Economic Studies group, the caps are slipping, with up to 25 percent of private firms reported to have begun padding worker salaries, not with overt raises -- which are still illegal -- but with other types of extra payments labeled loans, advances, bonuses and family baskets.
Although labor unions have been quiescent for the most part, some Argentine analysts worry that patience with the government's program may run out. Said historian Roberto Cortes Conde: "Alfonsin has to do something very soon to avoid inflationary pressures from low salaries. The whole situation is like a dam, and the pressure is growing. As fast as people came to trust the government, they could lose faith again, and that would be a serious matter."