Crises Squeeze Two Latin Leaders

The leaders of Argentina and Venezuela were set to attend a conference in Cuba to debate Puerto Rican independence on Tuesday, as their countries faced their most acute economic crises in a decade.

     Their trips — coming as currencies plummet and uncertainty about burgeoning economic troubles grow — seemed to underscore for many Argentines and Venezuelans the erratic governance that economists say have left both countries struggling.

     The government of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and her Venezuelan counterpart and ally Nicolas Maduro partly devalued their currencies last week, sending shudders across Latin America, and both administrations have blamed conspiracies for their economic woes. Argentina’s peso tumbled the most since the country’s 2001 default; basic goods in Venezuela are scarce.

     On Saturday, Mrs. Kirchner landed in Havana three days before the start of a gathering of Latin American leaders hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro.

     “Fidel invited me to lunch,” she said in a statement issued Sunday soon after her meal with the president’s brother and co-founder of the Communist state. “Very good food,” she told reporters after the meal.

     Mrs. Kirchner and Mr. Maduro have expressed support for the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s small independence movement. Mr. Maduro said he would propose that the island become the 34th member of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the body of countries meeting in Havana to discuss commercial and diplomatic matters.

     “Puerto Rico is not alone in its struggle for identity, for dignity, for independence, for its future,” Mr. Maduro, who was expected to arrive in Havana Sunday night, said in a speech last week.

     On the streets of Argentina and Venezuela, many asked what their leaders were doing in Cuba when they were struggling with Latin America’s highest rates of inflation and the fear that things could worsen when private investment is veering toward a recovering American economy.

     “Cuba?” said Alberto Gomez, an Argentine army retiree. “People are traumatized by the rise of the dollar, but the government isn’t talking about this. This is the only government we’ve had that doesn’t listen to people.”

     Both governments, leaders of a leftist vanguard in Latin America opposed to the Obama administration, still retain a strong base of support.

     “My opinion is that several businessmen are trying to weaken the government,” said Bruno Perez, a Buenos Aires sociology student. He was echoing Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof’s comments that vested interests drove the peso down last week.

     In Venezuela, the Datanalisis polling firm said in December that Mr. Maduro had just over half of his countrymen’s support in a poll that came days after he forced retailers to sell electronics goods at steep discounts to help fight inflation, a popular measure among the poor.

     But the same polls showed only 26.5% of respondents believed the government’s economic policies were helping the situation (Mr. Maduro blames an “economic war” waged by Washington and Venezuelan capitalists for the troubles).

     Mrs. Kirchner, who won a landslide re-election in 2011, has seen her approval rating fall fast in recent weeks, pollsters said. About 75% of those polled by the Buenos Aires pollster Management & Fit just over a week ago thought the economy was headed in the wrong direction, and 66.5% disapproved of her handling of the economy.

     Of vital concern, especially to the legions of poor in both countries. is inflation, which was 56.2% in Venezuela and approaching 30% in Argentina, say economists whose data is used by multilateral lending agencies.

     “The president is to blame for what’s happening and he’s off visiting Fidel,” said Jesus Rodriguez, 37, a cabdriver in Venezuela. “We accept the long lines to buy a bag of flour or milk,” he said. “We have just stood by as things have gotten worse.”

     Mrs. Kirchner hasn’t elaborated over the vague measure her aides announced last week to take pressure off the country’s currency: the sale of dollars at the official 8 peso per greenback exchange rate.

     Though a loosening of the currency regime, the plan carries major obstacles for Argentines: There will be a stiff 20% surcharge, and businesses are banned from buying.

     Carlos Pertierra, 70, a history teacher, said the measures are unlikely to alter Argentina’s economic course, mainly because the weaker currency may stoke inflation further.

     Javier Corrales, an Amherst College professor who writes frequently about Latin America, said that it is possible that, like Mr. Maduro in Venezuela, Mrs. Kirchner sees strengthening ties as beneficial to her cause.

     “By choosing to go to Cuba perhaps Argentina is showing precisely how serious they think the crisis is, how much she needs external advice,” Mr. Corrales said. “And how much she wants that advice to stay secret.”



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