Who Shot Argentina?
The Finger Prints On the Smoking Gun Read ‘I.M.F.’


Sunday, August 12, 2001

by Greg Palast

And news this week in South America is that Argentina died, or at least its economy. One in six workers were unemployed even before the beginning of this grim austral winter. Millions more have lost work as industrial production, already down 25% for the year, fell into a coma induced by interest rates which, by one measure, have jumped to over 90% on dollar-denominated borrowings.

This is an easy case to crack. Next to the still warm corpse of Argentina's economy, the killer had left a smoking gun with his fingerprints all over it.

The murder weapon is called, "Technical Memorandum of Understanding," dated September 5, 2000. It signed by Pedro Pou, President of the Central Bank of Argentina for transmission to Horst Kohler, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

'Inside Corporate America' received a complete copy of the 'Understanding' along with attachments and a companion letter from the Argentine Economics Ministry to the IMF from ... well, let's just say the envelope had no return address.

Close inspection leaves no doubt that this 'Understanding' fired fatal bullets into Argentina's defenseless body.

To begin with, the Understanding requires Argentina cut the government budget deficit from US$5.3 billion in 2000 to $4.1 billion in 2001. Think about that. Last September, Argentina was already on the cliff-edge of a deep recession. Even the half-baked economists at the IMF should know that holding back government spending in a contracting economy is like turning off the engines on an airplane in stall. Cut the deficit? As my 4-year old daughter would say, "That's stooopid."

The IMF is never wrong without being cruel as well. And so we read, under the boldface heading, "improving the conditions of the poor," agreement to drop salaries under the government's emergency employment program by 20%, from $200 a month to $160.

But you can't save much by taking $40 a month from the poor. For further savings, the Understanding also promised, "a 12-15 percent cut in salaries" of civil servants and "rationalization of certain privileged pension benefits."

In case you haven't a clue what the IMF means by "rationalization" - it means cutting payments to the aged by 13% under both public and private plans. Cut, cut, cut in the midst of a recession. Stooopid.

Salted in with the IMF's bone head recommendations and mean-spirited plans for pensioners and the poor are economic forecasts which border on the delusional. In the Understanding, the globalization geniuses project that, if Argentina carries out their plans to snuff consumer spending power, somehow the nation's economic production will leap by 3.7% and unemployment decline. In fact, by the end of March, the nation's GDP had already dropped 2.1% below the year earlier mark, and nosedived since.

What on Earth would induce Argentina to embrace the IMF's goofy program? The payoff, if Argentina does as it's told, is that this week the IMF lend $1.2 billion in aid. This is part of an emergency loan package of $26 billion for 2001 put together by the IMF, World Bank and private lenders announced at the end of last year.

But there is less to this generosity than meets the eye. The Understanding also assumes Argentina will "peg" its currency, the peso, to the dollar at an exchange rate of one to one. The currency peg doesn't come cheap. American banks and speculators are charging a whopping 16% risk premium above normal in return for the dollars needed to back this currency scheme.

Now do the arithmetic. On Argentina's $128 billion in debt, normal interest plus the 16% surcharge by lenders comes to about $27 billion a year. In other words, Argentina's people don't net one penny from the $26 billion loan package. Little of the bail-out money escapes New York where it lingers to pay interest to US creditors holding the debt, big fish like Citibank and little biters like Steve Hanke.

Hanke is President of Toronto Trust Argentina, an 'emerging market fund' which loaded up 100% on Argentine bonds during the last currency panic, in 1995. Cry not for Steve, Argentina. His annual return that year of 79.25% put the speculator's trust at the top of the speculation league table. This year he'll do it again.

Hanke profits by betting on the failure of the IMF's policies. But 'vulture' investing is merely Hanke's avocation. In his day job as professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, he freely offers straightforward advice to end Argentina's woe, advice which would put him out of the speculation game: "Abolish the IMF."

To begin with, Hanke would do away with the 'peg' - that one-peso-for-one-dollar exchange rate - which has proven a meat-hook on which the IMF hangs the Argentina's finances.

It's not the peg itself that skewers Argentina - but the peg combined with the Four Horsemen of IMF neoliberal policy: liberalized financial markets, free trade, mass privatization, and government surpluses.

'Liberalizing' financial markets means allowing capital to flow freely across a nation's borders. Indeed, after liberalization five years ago, the capital has flowed freely, with a vengeance. Argentina's panicked rich have dumped their pesos for dollars and sent the hard loot to investment havens abroad. Last month alone, Argentine's withdrew 6% of all bank deposits.

Once upon a time, government-owned national and provincial banks supported the nation's debts. But in the mid 1990s, the government of Carlos Menem sold these off to Citibank of New York, Fleet Bank of Boston and other foreign operators.

Charles Calomiris, a former World Bank advisor, describes these bank privatizations as a "really wonderful story." Wonderful for whom? Argentina has bled out as much as three-quarters of a billion dollars a day in hard currency holdings.

There's more cheer for creditors in the Understanding, including 'reform of the revenue sharing system.' This is the kinder, gentler way of stating that the US banks will be paid by siphoning off tax receipts earmarked for education and other provincial services. The Understanding also finds cash in "reforming" the nation's health insurance system (cut cut cut).

But when cut cut cut isn't enough to pay the debt holders, one can always sell 'la joyas de me abuela,' grandma's jewels, as journalist Mario del Carvil describes his nation's privatization scheme. The French picked up a big hunk of the water system and promptly raised charges in some provinces by 400%.

The Understanding's final bullet is imposition of "an open trade policy." This requires Argentina's exporters, with their products priced via the 'peg' in US dollars, into a pathetic, losing competion against Brazilian goods priced in a devaluing currency. Stooopid.

Still, the IMF's scheme could work. All, that is required is 'flexible' workforce, willing to bend to lower pensions, lower wages or no wages at all. But, to the dismay of Argentina's elite, the worker bees are proving inflexibly obstinate in agreeing to their own impoverishment. One inflexible worker, Anibal Veron, a 37-year-old father of five, lost his job as a bus driver; his company owes him 9 months pay.

Ver??n joined the 'piqueros,' the angry unemployed who blockade roads (39 blockades began just this week). In clearing a blockade in November, the military police allegedly killed him with a bullet to the head.

The death in Genoa of anti-globalization protestor Carlo Guiliani was Page One news in the US and Europe. Veron's death was page zero. Nor did you read about Carlos Santillan, 27 nor Oscar Barrios, 17, gunned down in a church courtyard in Salta Province when the police fired on a protest against the IMF austerity plan.

Globalization boosters like Tony Blair prefer to portray resistence as a lark of pampered Western youth curing their ennui by "indulging in protest, misguided" by naive notions. The media plays to this theme, focussing on the few thousand marching in Genoa, but not the 80,000 in the streets of Buenos Aires last May, nor the general strike honored by 7 million Argentine workers last June.

In Argentina, President Fernando de la Rua blames violence on the protesters. But the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) charges de la Rua's government with using hunger and terror to impose the IMF plans. SERPAJ leader Adolfo Perez Esquivel told me he is documenting cases of torture of protesters by police in the town where Santillan and Barrios died. To Perez Esquivel who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 repression and liberalization are handmaidens. He told the Observer he has just filed a complaint charging police with recruiting children as young as 5 years old into paramilitary squads, an operation he compares to the Hitler Youth.

But Perez Esquivel, who led protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, doesn't agree with my verdict against the IMF in Argentina's death. He notes that the economically fatal 'reforms' are embraced with enthusiasm by the nation's finance minister, Domingo Cavallo, best remembered as the head of the central bank during the military dictatorship. For the aging pacifist, that suggests that the untimely demise of the nation's economy wasn't murder, but suicide.

Additional research by Oliver Shykles

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