BUENOS AIRES, JULY 23 -- After a year of fits and starts, President Carlos Menem's revolutionary and politically risky effort to sell off money-losing public enterprises has shifted into overdrive.
Last month, Menem disposed of the telephone monopoly Entel to two groups led by Bell Atlantic and the Spanish firm Telefonica. This month, the flu-stricken president roused himself from his sickbed to sign a decree giving control of the state airline, Aerolineas Argentinas, to Spain's Iberia Airlines and a group of local investors.
The national government and several local jurisdictions are contemplating the sale of a host of other public firms and concessions around metropolitan Buenos Aires, including the electric power company, the racetrack and the city zoo. Officials are even studying whether to put a dozen sacred-cow defense industries on the auction block.
The deals are being structured to get cash-draining entities off the books, obtain relief for Argentina's foreign debt of nearly $60 billion and, in some cases, improve shabby public services.
In return for 60 percent of the telephone company, for example, the government will receive $214 million in cash and debt relief on about $5 billion. In the airline deal, Iberia and the local group will pay $260 million in cash and offer debt relief on $2 billion, receiving in exchange 85 percent of Aerolineas Argentinas.
To provide the debt relief, the winning bidders will go to the international market to buy discounted Argentine debt paper and then surrender it to the government. Since Argentine debt sells at about 13 cents on the dollar, the bidders in the airline deal will be able to arrange their $2 billion in debt relief by spending less than $300 million.
Criticized for months for talking endlessly about privatization but accomplishing little, Menem is reveling in finally having signed two major deals. "The era of to and fro is over in Argentina," he told reporters last week. "There is no going back."
The big public-worker unions charge that Menem is abandoning his Peronist origins by ripping apart a system of public ownership that strongman Juan Peron expanded upon. Members of Menem's Peronist Party have accused him of selling the national patrimony.
The opposition Radical Party, which tried and failed to privatize the phone company, the airline and other public firms under president Raul Alfonsin, now says Menem is going about it all wrong.
The Radicals contend they could have worked out better deals several years ago, if not for strident opposition from the Peronist bloc in Congress. Perhaps the bitterest voice is that of Alfonsin, who charged that Menem is not really a reformer at all, but rather "is only jumping on the bandwagon, taking advantage of the cultural triumph of the right."
Menem also faces criticism from conservatives, who are allies on this issue but who want him to move even faster. Alvaro Alsogaray, a leader of the Union of the Democratic Center and an adviser to Menem, says Menem could wipe out two-thirds of the total foreign debt if he quickly exchanged another five unnamed public companies for debt relief.
Internationally, reaction has been generally positive, with one World Bank official praising the telephone deal as part of "a reform program unmatched in the entire world."
Ordinary Argentines, meanwhile, are trying to figure out what all this means to them. As Spanish firms are involved in both the telephone and airline deals, and as the Spaniards were ejected from Argentina 170 years ago, commentators joke wryly about a "reconquest" at the point of a pen.
One crucial quirk of the telephone sale is that for the purposes of the deal, the country is divided into northern and southern zones. Bell Atlantic gets the north, Telefonica the south. The border traces an irregular path through the heart of Buenos Aires, splitting neighborhoods and giving rise to confusion.
It's the talk of the capital: Whom do you get, the Spaniards or the Yankees?
The newspapers are full of stories like that of Norberto Cuneo, 55. "I live a block south of the avenue," he explained, "so I get the Spaniards. But my telephone switching station is up in the Yankee zone. I don't understand it."
Telefonica and Bell seem to have different ideas on setting rates and structuring their new companies, but they agree that any real improvement in the comic-opera phone service that Argentines have long suffered is at least a couple of years away.
The airline deal presents different issues. Compared to other state enterprises, Aerolineas Argentinas functions quite well. The fear is that the new owners will make things worse.
The local group that bought part of the airline, Cielos del Sur (Southern Skies), is the parent company of a competing airline, Austral, which flies an extensive route schedule within Argentina. Critics fear that the two airlines' operations will be at least partially consolidated, leaving travelers with fewer options.
The deal "takes the opposite road, toward monopoly," said former public works minister Rodolfo Terragno, who tried unsuccessfully to sell Aerolineas during the Alfonsin years.
It also appears that some of Aerolineas' North American and European routes, immensely popular among the wealthy, will be folded into Iberia's operations. Suspicion is so great that an official had to reassure the public that neither the airline's name, nor its blue-and-white colors, would change.