BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 6 -- Edodoro Toronzo, who stood here today with a group of angry Argentine retirees protesting the arrival of Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, said the message he would like to send to the blunt-talking Bush administration official is simple.
"Mr. O'Neill, keep your mouth closed and go home!" said Toronzo, 65. "Your presence is not requested or desired in Argentina!"
The retired government clerk was among the protesters who vented their wrath against O'Neill in various parts of Argentina as he touched down in the nation that has become the epicenter of South America's burgeoning economic crisis. O'Neill arrived this afternoon on the last leg of a regional tour that included stops in Brazil and Uruguay.
A demonstrator shows an anti-U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill sign as she
protests outside the Buenos Aires Government House, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2002, in
Argentina. O'Neill arrived in Argentina on Tuesday amid heightened security measures,
wrapping up his tour of three financially troubled South American nations. (AP
Thousands of unionists, leftists, retirees and others turned out on the streets of Buenos Aires waving anti-U.S. placards, many targeting O'Neill. Smaller protests were held in other cities. One particularly angry Argentine company filed a petition with the district court of Buenos Aires to have O'Neill arrested for extortion.
The protests underscored a growing resentment against the United States in Argentina, where many feel angry, even betrayed, by the way the Bush administration has handled the worst financial crisis in this nation's history. Argentina was Washington's closest Latin American ally during the 1990s and was lauded as a star pupil of the International Monetary Fund. Yet since the economic collapse here -- Argentina was forced into a debt default and currency devaluation in January -- Argentines have felt orphaned by Washington.
O'Neill in particular has offered harsh commentary on Argentina and held back on any commitments of financial assistance to Latin America's third-largest economy. In an interview with the Economist magazine last year, he blamed the problems here on the fact that Argentina is a "laid-back" place with "no export industry to speak of."
During his four-day tour of South America, O'Neill brought olive branches to Brazil, promising U.S. support for a new IMF loan package, and to Uruguay, which just received a $1.5 billion bridge loan from the U.S. Treasury, the first of its kind granted by the Bush administration. But O'Neill, who held a closed-door meeting with President Eduardo Duhalde today and will meet with economic officials Wednesday, has conspicuously avoided mention of aid to Argentina.
Speaking to reporters in Montevideo, O'Neill said Uruguay received emergency aid because it's "a country that has followed sound economic polices and the leadership of the present is very excellent." He added: "Every country is different . . . even countries that are very close together can be very different."
His comments echoed those of Treasury and IMF officials who have suggested in the past that Buenos Aires must still come up with a "sustainable" economic plan, reining in public spending and improving currency policy, before it gets help. Argentines have argued that the situation here is so dire that further budget cuts are too difficult to make.
Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna suggested in Clarin, the country's largest newspaper, that Argentina was no longer seeking "fresh funds" from the IMF and was concentrating on winning a temporary reprieve on billions of dollars in loan payments it owes multilateral lenders this year.
Tonight, after meeting with Duhalde for an hour at the presidential residence in suburban Buenos Aires, O'Neill sounded a more conciliatory note. He described the Argentines as a "great people." He added that his message to Duhalde had been "that we want Argentina to succeed, that we're anxious for them to succeed" and would continue to encourage them to work with multilateral lenders to make that happen.
Opposition to O'Neill's visit was most visible among leftists and union members. But several groups of depositors who have their life savings trapped inside foreign banks here also voiced complaints.
IMPA, a Buenos Aires-based aluminum maker, filed a largely symbolic judicial request for O'Neill's detention on charges of "extortion." Guillermo Robledo, IMPA's general manager, said the company is furious over demands made by the IMF and U.S. Treasury earlier this year that the Argentine government overturn a law that protected troubled companies from their creditors for two years, arguing it would deter future foreign investment here.
The measure has been repealed as demanded, but there is still no sign of an immediate deal with the IMF. Now, many companies are fighting off foreclosures from creditors, including foreign lenders.
"O'Neill spent all that time in Africa with Bono, and he comes to Argentina, the worst economic trouble spot right now, and he spends a day. What's he going to find out in a day? Nothing," said Robledo, referring to a recent trip O'Neill made with the lead singer of the rock band U2. "We don't need publicity stunts and photo ops. If he's going to help us with money, help us. If he isn't, then go home."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company