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Just As Things Look Up, Menem’s Popularity Dips

August 6, 1992

BUENOS AIRES, Argen (AP) _ Two years ago, when President Carlos Menem’s prospects were bleak, Argentines thronged the Plaza de Mayo to cheer him on. Last month, when things looked much better, they filled the plaza to jeer.

Halfway through Menem’s six-year presidency, Argentines are forgetting the hyperinflation that made them willing to accept almost any sacrifice to achieve stability. Now, they seek the benefits of growing prosperity.

″Menem made all kinds of promises″ to support education, but ″hasn’t kept one,″ said Maria Sanchez, 48, a grade-school teacher and union organizer. Teachers demand major increases in salaries that start at the equivalent of only $200 a month.

Pensioners complain about having to live on $150, approximately the national minimum wage.

Tenants want rent control because a doubling of property values has caused rents to soar.

The political opposition is delaying important legislation to force Menem’s majority Peronist party to negotiate.

Menem, 62, insists he ″won’t deviate a single minute″ from his economic policies. They brought inflation down to 0.8 percent in June from a record 197 percent in July 1989, when he took office, and transformed the economy from a 5 percent decline in that year to a current growth rate of 7 percent.

With the good news have come public demands that austerity be eased, unions be given a break and non-Peronists be let in on policy-making.

Some signs of the times:

- The 2-million-member General Workers Confederation, Peronist to the core, threatened its first general strike against Menem in July, but withdrew the threat after negotiations with the government.

- The opposition Civic Radical Union defeated Menem’s hand-picked Senate candidate in Buenos Aires in June.

- Menem reluctantly backed off changing the constitution so he could seek another term in 1995.

- After posting the world’s biggest gain last year, the stock market dropped about 30 percent from mid-June to early July.

- A housing boom appears to be over. ″We haven’t sold a single apartment in three months,″ said Sandra Reymann, a real estate agent. ″We’re not even getting phone calls.″

In other words, the luster has faded from what some call the Menem Miracle.

His government sold the telephone company and airline with relative ease in late 1990, then leased thousands of miles of highways and railroad tracks, but has few bidders for the electric, water and other state companies.

That Argentina has prospered under Menem seems beyond doubt. The currency has held steady with the dollar for 15 months, the longest stretch in two decades, even with the abolition of price controls.

The central bank has $10 billion in currency and gold, and the $62 billion foreign debt has been renegotiated.

Unemployment has been nearly halved, to 5.3 percent and wages have soared, although not as high as prices.

A small ice cream cone can cost $2.50. A gallon of regular gas is $2.80, a subcompact car $12,000, a soft-cover bestseller $18 and a one-minute telephone call to the United States about $3.

Menem insists that all goes well, but not all Argentines agree.

Fernando Solanas, a leftist filmmaker who lost a run for the Senate, calls him a ″rapacious weasel.″ Ernesto Sabato, perhaps Argentina’s best known living writer, said: ″For the first time, the country is at rock bottom.″

Polls indicate Argentines generally support Menem’s economic program, however, and his approval rating is about 50 percent.

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