- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003


BUENOS AIRES — Argentina’s new president, Nestor Kirchner, prepares for an “open agenda” meeting in Washington tomorrow with President Bush, but topping his list of priorities is winning U.S. support in key negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

Mr. Kirchner, who took office in May, wants to pull Argentina out of its lengthy economic slump and conclude talks seeking new assistance with the IMF by Sept. 9.

The World Bank says 1.4 million Argentines did not have enough to eat at some point in 2002, the depth of Argentina’s four-year economic crisis. Half the 36 million Argentines slid below the poverty line, and one-fifth of the work force was jobless in 2002.

In December 2001, Buenos Aires defaulted on part of its $141 billion sovereign debt, making it a pariah in international banking.

“There will be an open agenda” at tomorrow’s meeting, said Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa.

Talks will probably include tariffs on Argentine exports to the United States, as well as negotiations intended to reach a hemispheric free market.

The plan, known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere — with Cuba the notable exception — agreed to it in 1988.

Another likely topic is Argentina’s participation, within a U.N. framework, in peacekeeping and reconstruction in Iraq, Mr. Bielsa said in a radio interview.

But for Mr. Kirchner, reviving his country’s moribund economy is the most important goal.

Argentina and the IMF are due to hold talks to define their relationship during the next three years. Their current deal expires at the end of August, and if a new accord cannot be reached, Argentina will have to repay a $6 billion debt by the end of the year.

The IMF is pushing to cobble together an agreement with Argentina in time for its annual meeting Sept. 23 in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, an IMF spokesman said last week.

“The goal of trying to reach an agreement by September, by the annual meeting; we’re working as hard as we can to do so,” said IMF spokesman Tom Dawson.

“It’s a matter of urgency, and therefore … the Fund staff working with this issue will not be observing the traditional August recess,” Mr. Dawson said.

On Friday, Mr. Kirchner ended a four-nation tour of Europe seeking support for Argentina’s debt renegotiation with foreign lenders. He was accompanied by Mr. Bielsa and Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna.

The Europe trip was so successful that Mr. Kirchner pushed forward the visit to Washington, his Cabinet chief Alberto Fernandez said Saturday. On that day, Finance Secretary Guillermo Nielsen began a visit to Tokyo, Frankfurt, Rome and New York to talk with holders of Argentine bonds, unpaid since the December 2001 moratorium.

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