BUENOS AIRES — Aug. 7 could not have been a more emblematic day of what is happening in Argentina.
It was a day of two multitudes: one, in an orderly line at the Shrine of St. Cajetan in Buenos Aires; the other, blocking roads in a sign of protest along Argentinean highways.
In the midst of rising unemployment and an economic crisis showing no signs of easing, tens of thousands of Argentineans paid homage to St. Cajetan, a 15th-century Italian saint who mysteriously became the patron of work and bread to whom Argentinians appeal to during hard times.
Coinciding with St. Cajetan's feast day, Argentina faced a wave of nationwide road blockades by thousands of unemployed workers protesting an unpopular government austerity plan aimed at sparking international financial support and avoiding debt default.
The prayers to St. Cajetan and the shouts at road blockades asked for the same thing: an alternative to public sector spending cuts that have caused recession and 16% unemployment.
But a divergence of opinion divides the South American nation on how to overcome the crisis. The center-left government of Fernando De la Rua, in an act of political desperation, has appointed as new economy minister Rua's political rival, Domingo Cavallo.
For Cavallo, a former presidential candidate and former economic minister, the solution is hard but simple: a dramatic cut in government spending to secure a $6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to keep servicing Argentina's $128 billion public debt.
The Argentinean Bishops' Conference has a radically different view about how to proceed. Said Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, “There must be something fundamentally wrong when the measures put more poor people in the streets while rich people celebrate; when the police prosecute those who shout for jobs, while white-glove thieves elude justice.”
Bishop Marcerlo Melani of Viedma, who recently released a statement about the need for a deep moral reform, told the Register, “In the way this situation is being handled, there is no reference to a critical problem: the great immorality and irresponsibility in the way politicians, bankers and even union leaders have been acting.
“There is a deep divorce between the leaders and the people, because while politicians speak about ‘convincing investors,’ the people are asking why they have to pay the price of a party they did not attend.”
International markets want to see evidence that the government will stick to its austerity plan, aimed at erasing the budget deficit for the second half of 2001. But state employees and retired workers, who have seen salaries and pensions slashed by 13%, are demanding a different solution.
Secretary of Finance Daniel Marx said the government is taking the harsh measures for the sake of
Argentina's citizens, who “otherwise would see their future obliterated by inflation.” Said Marx, “This is a hard time that must be shared by all in order to have better times.”
Still, Marx admitted it would take “some time” before Argentinians, especially the poor, see concrete benefits. In fact, he told the Register that all of the $6 billion the government is seeking “will be used to recompose reserves to increase trust among investors.”
Bishop José Cone-jero Gallego of Formosa, a poor northern region, said “the neo-liberal economics have not only imposed over us an economic system, but even a language — full of terms like ‘competitive,’ ‘deficit,’ ‘default’ — that is completely foreign to our people.”
Added Bishop Conejero, “The government have neither explanations for their measures nor a clear policy to help the most needy, and this is creating a sensation of uncertainty, anguish and lack of hope.”
The bishops have also been central in facilitating negotiations to seek constructive alternatives.
Cardinal Raul Francisco Primatesta, retired archbishop of Córdova and head of the Social Affairs Commission of the Argentinean bishops' conference, is leading informal conversations between government representatives, heads of entrepreneurs' organizations and union leaders.
A source at the Social Affairs Commission said the meetings are intended to “help different sectors to go beyond their usual jargon and find a long-term agreement on how to face the crisis in the best way possible.” Said the source, “The cardinal's role is pretty much to help all sectors sit together and understand that all will have to concede something.”
Also, in addition to the existing support provided by its network of relief services, the Church launched a campaign on Aug. 7, St. Cajetan's feast, to generate jobs for unemployed workers.
The jobs, offered through Caritas Argentina, draw on two sources. One is the creation of employment in Church-run organizations; the other is coordinated with the Catholic Association of Catholic Entrepreneurs.
Cardinal Primatesta has asked the entrepreneurs' association to encourage members to provide jobs in their businesses, “even walking an extra mile.” Other private employers have been requested to at least not make job cuts unless absolutely necessary.
“This effort to provide jobs is a call to hope and to solidarity,” said Bishop-elect Fernando Maletti, pastor of the St. Cajetan shrine, where the largest job center operates.
Nevertheless, the bishops insist that only a moral restructuring of public life can provide a long-term solution. At least 20 Argentinean bishops, including those of the most important archdioceses, have released statements about the connection between the economic crisis and the lack of personal virtues and public values in Argentinean politics.
“There has been too much corruption, widespread tax evasion and a systematic abuse of the state's resources,” said Bishop Melani. “How much proof is needed to accept that values have consequences in our public life?”
Sergio Rubin, a political analyst of the daily newspaper Clarín, said, “With their recent words and deeds, the Argentinean episcopate has shown their decision not only to defend the poor, as usual, but even to be uncomfortable to the powerful. And the powerful means anyone at the top, because the bishops' critical words fit not only the government, but also the opposition and financial leaders.”
Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru