World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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DEVELOPMENT-ARGENTINA: Let Down by Alianza, Activists Head to 'Anti-Davos'

By Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 23 (IPS) - The Argentine government of Fernando de la Rúa took office with a promise to prioritise social policy - after Carlos Menem led the nation with 10 years of neoliberal reforms - but the president and his Alianza coalition have disappointed political sectors, trade unions and social movements for failing to curb unemployment and poverty.

Leaders of these groups are preparing to take an active role at the World Social Forum (WSF) beginning later this week in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The Jan 25 to 30 meet will bring together intellectuals, politicians and civil society representatives to discuss alternatives to the neoliberal economic model that is the driving force behind globalisation.

The WSF has the backing of some 300 entities from around the world, in addition to 200 from Brazil, and from the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who stated that the goals of the conference coincide with the highest priorities of the international community.

The forum has deliberately been scheduled to occur in parallel with the World Economic Forum, based in Davos, Switzerland, which every January attracts presidents and transnational corporate executives to debate neoliberal policies in order to deepen the globalisation process.

The WSF is a reflection of the movement that erupted in the late 1990s with protests against globalisation during meetings of the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

Architect Patricia Isasa, of the Argentine Workers' Congress, told IPS that the WSF attempts ''to prove that, despite what is imposed as the only philosophy - the neoliberal approach -, there really exists a plurality of alternative choices and ideas.''

As an example, she mentioned a programme her organisation proposes, which unites public and private workers from a range of sectors (teachers, public employees, airline pilots), to establish unemployment insurance of 380 dollars a month, plus 60 dollars for each child in the unemployed person's family.

The initiative, which seeks to strengthen the internal market, includes a detailed outline of sources for its financing and has the support of numerous private enterprises, but it has yet to be considered by the Argentine Congress. The De la Rúa government heard the proposal, but deemed it unviable.

Isasa, who represents the international relations office of the Workers' Congress, maintains that the Argentine government, which took office as an alliance of the centre-left, has let her organisation down.

''Far from being a progressive government, it turned out to be a conservative government that maintains the fiscal adjustment policies of Menem (1989-1999), the same model, but with the addition of a cut in salaries,'' she stated.

The disappointment felt by this trade union's leaders is shared by a group of Alianza lawmakers who have expressed their displeasure with the route the Argentine government is taking.

Socialist deputies have already abandoned the governing coalition's bench in Congress, and a group of lawmakers from the coalition's two dominant parties - the Radical Civic Union and the Solidarity Front - has not yet decided to cut ties, but is apparently on the verge of doing so.

According to data from the Ministry of Social Development, there are an estimated 14 million poor in Argentina's cities and rural areas, or 40 percent of the country's 35 million people.

Among the poor, there are nearly four million living in extreme poverty, and some five million who just over a decade ago would have been considered members of the middle class.

Equis, a consultancy, reported that in the 1990s the gap between rich and poor in Argentina increased 57 percent. The firm's director, sociologist Artemio López, affirmed that the much touted ''spill-over'' that was to spread across the social spectrum as a result of economic growth did not occur, not even during the best economic years of the last decade.

Regressive distribution ran parallel to growing unemployment. The latest measures indicate that 14.7 percent of the economically active population does not hold a job, but economists admit that figure is lower than the real percentage because it does not count those who have given up on looking for work.

The De la Rúa government took the nation's helm in December 1999 with other promises: to continue with Menem's inflation- controlling policies as well as his privatisation plans.

But the president stressed that he would give priority to the sectors that had been ignored most during the previous government, such as pensioners, the poor and the unemployed, and he committed to designating more resources for health, education, social security, justice and public safety.

De la Rúa's predecessor Menem advanced the privatisation process with the idea of turning over the resources that had been devoured by inefficient public entities to improve other sectors of the government, but once the bidding processes were over, previously state-run services grew expensive, oversight mechanisms did not work and social investment never arrived.

In response, De la Rúa promised that social investment would indeed occur under his administration and that public bodies would have greater power to oversee the privatised entities. He also committed to stimulating economic growth capable of generating new jobs and to designating millions of dollars to social assistance programmes.

To do so, he created the Ministry of Social Development and named one of the Alianza's most influential figures, Graciela Fernández Meijide, to head it. She had burst onto the public scene as the mother of one who disappeared under the Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983) and became a notable leader of the coalition government's most progressive wing.

But, lacking economic resources during 2000, social plans came to nothing and the minister's popularity suffered a sharp decline.

The expectations for growth were not met and, instead of advancing along the promised route, the government carried out a series of adjustments to reduce the fiscal imbalance, attract foreign investment and cut expenditures - without any of the measures producing the desired results.

Only after concluding its first year in office did the government obtain the strong backing from multilateral credit organisations, such as the IMF, that will allow Argentina to handle its debt payments for 2001. Progressive sectors, meanwhile, continue waiting for the attention promised to the nation's marginalized sectors. (END/IPS/tra-so/mv/ag/ld/01)

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