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SOMBER LESSON FROM ARGENTINA

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Unlike uprisings in other nations in recent weeks, the riots that have gripped major cities in Argentine are not led by students, dissident troops, or political opposition. Much of the unrest is by housewives looting stores and even private homes as they desperately seek food for their families.

That is a sad commentary on the failing Argentine economy where $59 billion in foreign debt, a huge national budget deficit and chronic inflation - topping 70 percent in May alone - have caused layoffs, food shortages, and declining buying power.Factories are closing, people are unemployed and there is real hunger. This in a nation that is among the world's largest exporters of beef and grain.

Argentina's lame-duck President Raul Alfonsin, due to leave office Dec. 10, has declared a state of emergency and suspended all civil rights. What a sad step by a man elected in 1983 to replace a military regime that had held power for eight years and been guilty of many civil rights violations.

Alfonsin's opponents are probably right when they call for him to step down early so that the country can rally around the president-elect, Carlos Menem, and formulate policies to cope with the crisis. It may take such a dramatic step to bring things under control.

Whether troops being sent to major cities can restore calm is uncertain. Hunger is a powerful motivator, stronger than any political ideology, and it can make people desperate, even in the face of troops.

The lessons in Argentina ought not to be lost on North Americans. The things that have precipitated the inflation crisis - foreign debt, trade imbalances, huge federal budget deficits - are all familiar to the United States.

Those in Congress who choose year after year to ignore or slight those problems should take a good look at Argentina and see what such folly can do to even a prosperous nation.