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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 10:13 GMT
Unwitting victims of crisis
Cruise ship near Punta del Este, Uruguay
The crisis has affected tourism in the region
By Sarah Robbins in Buenos Aires

Argentina is on the brink of social and economic meltdown.

This week, the current president Eduardo Duhalde announced a devaluation of the peso, which for more than a decade was pegged to the US dollar, in an effort to boost Argentinian exports.

The change has pushed many Argentines into a state of panic and some British holidaymakers have been caught up in the chaos.

Warwick and Anne Robinson, from Witney in Oxfordshire, were on the holiday of a lifetime when their cruise ship pulled into Buenos Aires.

We couldn't cash a travellers cheque anywhere - the banks just wouldn't touch it

Warwick Robinson
British tourist
Having started their month-long journey in Santiago, Chile, they travelled through the glaciers, and around the southernmost tip of Latin America, Tierra del Fuego.

Tourists stranded

Bad weather kept them from touching shore in the Falkland Islands but it was a bad economy in the Argentinian capital that proved to be their biggest obstacle.

The Robinsons had planned to spend several days taking in the sights in Buenos Aires, before moving on to Brazil's Rio de Janeiro for the end of their holiday.

Jorge Remes Lenicov
Jorge Remes Lenicov is open about the collapse
But they soon found themselves stranded, unable to purchase their ticket for the next leg of their trip.

They were effectively trapped in economic limbo.

Mr Robinson said: "We couldn't cash a travellers cheque anywhere - the banks just wouldn't touch it.

"And we couldn't pay for our flight on to Brazil as they were refusing to accept credit cards of any kind."

Ordinary Argentines have been taking to the streets in droves to protest against the types of banking measures that disrupted the Robinsons' holiday.

No dollars

Facing empty government coffers and cut off from international aid after a recent default on the country's foreign debt, President Duhalde has used emergency powers granted by congress to severely restrict cash withdrawals.

"You can't withdraw dollars from the ATM - you put your card in the ATM but it will only allow you to get pesos," Mr Robinson said.

"And the airlines won't accept pesos and in any case there's a limit to what you can take out of the ATM."

Argentina is bankrupt

Jorge Remes Lenicov
Economy minister
Excursions have also been affected. Looking to explore Argentine nightlife and culture, the Robinsons pre-paid 40 each for tickets to a tango show.

After enjoying dinner and a performance by the city's best dancers, they were approached discreetly by a waiter who informed them there would be a 3 surcharge "for the economic problems".

Such price hikes have become commonplace in Argentina, even though the official devaluation has yet to take effect.

Growing poverty

Shopowners, uncertain about how much they will have to pay for goods in the coming days, have raised prices to hedge against the possibility that the peso plummets in value.

Argentina's new economy minister did not mince his words about the situation in a recent press conference.

The banks are so messed up I haven't been able to get anything done

Vanessa Traverso
Travel agent
"Argentina is bankrupt - the recession has been growing for four years, unemployment is growing, poverty is growing.

"In reality, our economy has collapsed," Jorge Remes Lenicov admitted.

Despite government efforts to moderate the effect of the economic crisis on vulnerable sectors, it has already proved traumatic.

The average Argentine is worried but has no other choice but to continue as best he can.

Spontaneous violence

"What else can I do," said Vanessa Traverso, the hotel travel agent who helped the Robinsons eventually convince the airlines to accept their credit card to pay for a flight to Brazil.

"I've been trying to pay my own credit card bills but the banks are so messed up I haven't been able to get anything done."

While tensions are high and spontaneous burst of violence are becoming increasingly regular, the UK Foreign Office is not discouraging travellers from going to Argentina.

The Robinsons enjoyed their visit but admit they were surprised by the extent of the turmoil.

"We didn't think it would affect us but it did," Mr Robinson confessed.

See also:

11 Jan 02 | Americas
Fresh protests rock Argentina
09 Jan 02 | Business
Argentina currency fears mount
08 Jan 02 | Business
IMF sees more pain for Argentina
07 Jan 02 | Business
Q&A: Argentina's economic crisis
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