After the rage, Argentina starts to remake itself

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The Argentine Congress named its caretaker president yesterday, formally accepting the resignation of Fernando de la Rua in response to unrest that left at least 24 dead.

President De la Rua left hastily in a helicopter late on Thursday after two days of looting, vandalism and violent protests. But early yesterday, he returned to the presidential palace for his last decision as President, to suspend the state of emergency he had declared a day earlier.

"What I've heard is the voice of the people," Mr De la Rua told reporters. "I've given the best of myself to the country."

The Senate leader, Ramon Puerta, was named acting president. A joint session of Congress tonight is expected to decide whether he should finish Mr De la Rua's term, which ends in December 2003, or schedule elections for 31 March.

As politicians started forming a new government, the country also began cleaning away the rubble left by days of raucous and violent protests over the state of the economy.

Omar Latorre, whose café in Buenos Aires was vandalised during the protests, said: "Anything would be better than De la Rua, who was about as active as a house plant. Right now I am feeling impotence and rage. It isn't fair that people like me have to pay for the government's mistakes."

Police continued to restrict traffic to the capital's Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace and the tang of tear-gas hung in the air as a few pedestrians and television crew members stepped over the broken park benches. But the scene was markedly calm in contrast to the previous days, when thousands of protesters had banged pots and pans and defied riot police with their makeshift barricades.

Eugenio Fernandez, 68, listened to the news on a transistor radio in the square. "I was there and it was impressive, the people just took action without anyone leading them," he said. "But the new government will be no better. It can't be, with the same judicial system, politicians, economists and corruption – frankly I'm ashamed to be Argentine."

Many Argentines seemed heartened that they had managed to come together in a show of opposition that had made politicians aware their needs should not be ignored. The protests had also triggered the resignation of the Minister of Economy, Domingo Cavallo, who had imposed wage cuts, tax hikes and bank restrictions in a desperate effort to control government spending.

Leandro Zedalic, a supermarket executive who was stepping through shattered glass on his way to work, said: "Now [the politicians] have to improve and get their acts together because they know that anything the people disagree with can trigger protests all over again." Mr Zedalic works for the discount chain Dia, 45 of whose stores were looted in the protests.

Juana Jimenez, a matronly 40-year-old, said: "I hope things can get better now. De la Rua and Cavallo were eating us alive. It was either us or them."

Amid the political upheaval, hundreds of Argentines were lining up in front of the Spanish consulate to try to leave the country.

Nuria Campos, 35, has two school-age children. "I'm not giving anyone another chance right now. We've given the politicians too many already. They never gave us another chance," she said as she obtained the papers for her family to emigrate. Roberto Sanchez, her husband, said: "Frankly I don't feel represented by any of the politicians. I feel sad about leaving but I don't have much choice."

Mr De la Rua's replacement is particularly important because he could herald the end of the peso's parity with the dollar. Economists are divided over the benefits of the currency's devaluation, which could cause even more economic hardship in a country with 18 per cent unemployment, a recession dating back four years and debt of $132bn (about £90bn). Proponents of devaluation say the move would make exports more competitive and make it easier to balance the budget.

Carlos Rivas, a consultant for the Interamerican Development Bank, said: "People I talk to are scared. Everybody was predicting this would happen, but the sheer velocity of events has caught us off guard." The International Monetary Fund held back $1.26bn in aid this month because the country had missed fiscal targets in spite of a "zero deficit law", pay cuts and tax rises.

"De la Rua's resignation can be a positive thing because he had no power, but any replacements will have nothing prepared and no economic plan at all," Mr Rivas said. He said a 25 per cent devaluation could mean the downfall of the nation's top banks. Only a more moderate 20 per cent devaluation or careful fiscal policy could extract Argentina from the crisis, he said.

Most mortgages and loans in Argentina are in dollars. Several analysts have proposed converting all debts to pesos before devaluing the currency.

Anibal Ibarra, the Mayor of Buenos Aires, said: "Those that think that, with the departure of President De la Rua, this thing is over, are mistaken. The stage to come will be no less difficult than the one that has just passed."

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