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Fleeing a
'Broken' Argentina

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Fleeing a 'Broken' Argentina
Many Head to Ancestral Homes to Escape Economic Crisis

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 13, 2002; Page A17

BUENOS AIRES, Jan. 12 -- In the winter of 1933, Fortunato Ortueste left a destitute life in Depression-era Spain and thought he had found El Dorado.

Stepping off a transatlantic liner, he marveled at the glamour of Buenos Aires. "The Paris of Latin America" dazzled with grand boulevards filled with women in French mink coats and men in crisp British suits -- the telltale signs of wealth in a country then ranked among the world's 10 richest.

Ortueste's Argentine-born son, Juan Carlos Ortueste, recalled his late father's stories about his arrival in what was then an immigrants' paradise.

But like Argentina's fortunes, Ortueste family history is now reversing itself, too. This week, Juan Carlos Ortueste, 49, spent 24 hours in a long line outside the Spanish consulate waiting to apply for passports for his family of four. If all goes right, the family hopes to leave Buenos Aires in less than six months for its ancestral homeland.

The Ortuestes are among tens of thousands of Argentine Jews and descendents of immigrants from Spain, Italy, Britain, Germany and France who are scrambling to leave a country described even by its president as "broken and penniless."

Stung by Argentina's economic collapse and the failure of its social services safety net, and fed up with what they see as a hopelessly corrupt political class, these Argentines are desperate to escape a situation they view as unfixable.

European consulates in Buenos Aires are overwhelmed as thousands seek to take advantage of immigration laws that allow them to use their bloodlines to obtain foreign passports and citizenship. Israel is offering special financial assistance to Argentine Jews -- the world's sixth-largest Jewish community -- who want to emigrate. A recent poll by Buenos Aries-based Equis research group showed that one-third of the people in this country of about 37 million would leave if they could.

The flight has sparked debate over the disintegration of national pride and cohesion. It also highlights one of the biggest long-term obstacles to recovery -- lack of faith in Argentine politicians, institutions and the country itself. Many who are leaving are professionals and young people who could have helped rebuild Latin America's third-largest economy.

"I am glad my father never lived to see this day -- he loved this country so much," said Ortueste, an engineer whose teenage sons want to be a doctor and a lawyer. The family has suffered deeply during Argentina's crisis, because Ortueste's company hasn't paid him in two months. After the government devalued the peso last weekend, he watched its value fall as prices rose. The family's life savings were frozen last month by a government decree aimed at halting a run on the banks. New guidelines released this week limit Argentines' access to their deposits until the end of 2005.

"If my father were alive, I think he would understand -- I'm doing it for my children," continued the soft-spoken man with a gray mustache and worry lines sprouting around his eyes. "My sons don't want to leave. They have their friends, their lives. But what they don't have here is a future. They will thank me some day, and understand that their father did what he did so his sons could have a chance to realize their dreams. Maybe they will move back someday, or their children will. But now it is time to go."

Argentina underwent a long, painful decline even before its recent collapse. At the turn of the 20th century, it ranked among the world's richest countries, but decades of military dictatorships and corrupt civilian governmentsate away much of its wealth. Until recently, however, Argentina still enjoyed the highest standard of living in Latin America and relative immunity from the abject poverty and lack of services common in other parts of the region.

After embracing free-market reforms in the early 1990s, a transition plagued by runaway public spending and corruption, Argentina's economy stalled during the financial crises that hit East Asia, Russia and Brazil late in the decade. Other countries recovered, but Argentina lingered in recession, failing to boost exports or create new jobs because of itsrelatively high manufacturing and food production costs and, in some cases, its uncompetitive industries.

At the same time, government overspending continued, financed by more and more borrowing. After months of dire predictions, the government defaulted on its $142 billion debt and devaluated its currency, the peso, on Jan. 5. Analysts say it could be six months to a year or longer before the economy begins to recover. In the meantime, many Argentines aren't waiting around to find out.

The exodus has been building for months, but has sharply increased over the past three weeks as the economic crisis came to a head and a popular revolt turned the presidency into a revolving door.

The longest lines are in front of the elegant Spanish consulate in a tree-lined neighborhood in northern Buenos Aires. They have increased from 800 to 3,000 people a day, officials say, with some people camped out with chairs and food, waiting one or two nights for interviews with consular officials.

More than 10 million Argentines are at least half Italian, and the Italian consulate has also been inundated. Italian officials say applications for passports and citizenship have almost tripled in two weeks. There is a 17,000-person waiting list for citizenship, a backlog that authorities say could take until 2004 to process. "It is utterly amazing," said Vincenzo Palladino, the Italian consul-general in Buenos Aires. "We are seeing all-time records. The people are desperate to get out."

The U.S. Embassy is also seeing an increase in requests for temporary work visas, and in the number of U.S. citizens trying to obtain passports for their Argentine-born spouses and children.

But the clamor to make aliya -- the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel -- is reaching a fevered pitch in Argentina's large Jewish community. In the past 10 days alone, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps manage Israel's worldwide immigration, has processed 1,400 applicants in Buenos Aires -- 10 times the normal number. Israeli immigration authorities have taken over two floors of the cavernous Jewish Community Center, known as AMIA, to handle the hundreds of new applicants arriving daily.

Responding to the economic plight of Argentine Jews, which number more than 200,000 in Buenos Aires alone, Israel has promised to provide extra financial assistance. Besides plane tickets, relocation assistance, and the health and education benefits awarded to most relocating Jews, Israel's 2002 budget calls for extra funds for mortgages and job training for Argentines.

"We have Argentines who aren't even Jewish calling us up," said Edwin Yoba, first secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. "We have to explain to them that this program only applies to Argentine Jews."

At AMIA in Buenos Aires's old Jewish quarter, Sara Kohan, 74, spoke to an Israeli immigration authority. She is a widow living on her husband's $250-a-month pension, but like many retired Argentines, she has had problems cashing the checks in recent months because the government had no funds.

This has left her struggling to get by -- especially with the collapse of the state health care system that has cut her and millions of other elderly Argentines off from doctor's care and medication. Kohan cannot afford to pay the bills herself. Since the devaluation of the peso, the price of her imported high blood pressure medicine has soared. In Israel, state-assisted medical benefits, embassy officials here say, will provide her with care.

"Do you think it is not hard for me, a woman of my age, to leave the only country she has ever known and loved?" Kohan said. "I will miss my friends, my home, the streets of this city that has so many memories for me. But I need to go to a place where I will have a secure future."

Does she think she will be more secure in Israel than in Argentina? "Of that, I have no doubt," she quickly responded. "I understand the problems in Israel, but in Argentina, we have an uncertainty of a different kind. This is a broken country, and I fear I will not live long enough to see it rebuilt."

Large numbers of Bolivians, Peruvians and Paraguayans were drawn to Argentina in the 1990s, because it had a large, stable middle class without the large disparities between rich and poor so prevalent in other countries in the region. But now that Argentina is suffering from record 40 percent poverty and unemployment near 20 percent, many of them are heading home.

"There are no more opportunities here," said Amilia Lopez Huamala, 47, from Sucre, Bolivia, who was laden with luggage at the Buenos Aires bus terminal. She's leaving after losing her job as a maid with a family that can no longer afford her keep. "I'll just go home and take my chances there."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company