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Argentines jockey to cope with economic turmoil

Like most people, Carlos Partcha, an 80-year-old retired journalist, has taken the simpler measure of buying U.S. dollars and stashing them under his mattress a¿¿ as he has done for more than a decade.

"We don't trust anything anymore. Not even the banking institutions," Partcha said. "I had saved in dollars, and when the banks froze deposits in 2001, I got pesos back and lost my money."

"We're so used to these levels of uncertainty that the Argentine has developed a sort of workout routine to deal with" economic instability, he said.

The crisis 13 years ago was so bad that one of every five Argentines was out of work and some reported going hungry. The peso, which had been tied to the dollar, lost nearly 70 percent of its value.

Banks froze deposits and barricaded behind sheet metal as thousands of protesters unsuccessfully tried to withdraw their savings. At least 27 people died in protests and looting that swept Argentina in December 2001 as South America's second-largest economy unraveled and eventually defaulted on a debt of more than $100 billion. Argentina saw a revolving door of five presidents over two weeks.

Restoring Argentina's sense of pride and sovereignty after that collapse has been the central goal of President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and political predecessor, Nestor Kirchner. The presidential couple negotiated or paid off most of Argentina's defaulted debt, nationalized the pension system, and retook control of the national airline and oil company. They also kept energy cheap through subsidies and dug deep into the treasury to redirect revenue to the poor through handouts.

For several years, Argentina enjoyed annual growth of 7 percent fueled by the high prices foreigners paid for the country's soybeans and other agricultural commodities.

But now, Argentina suffers from a shortage of dollars, one of the world's highest inflation rates and an inability to tap into global credit markets because of its debt default.

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