Some in Argentina See Secession as the
Answer to Economic Peril
NEUQUÉN, Argentina — For years this tidy city of
250,000 has prided itself on being "the gateway to Patagonia." But these days it
is also the center of an increasingly restive movement to detach this
southernmost region of South America, rich in oil and minerals, from the
economic disaster that is the rest of Argentina.
Because of that deepening
crisis, public services have been sharply cut for Patagonians even as their
region's own bounty continues to generate income for the central government. As
a result, longstanding resentment of Buenos Aires has intensified, and political
autonomy, regional integration and even secession are now being openly discussed
"What is taking place is a search for options," said
Gerardo Mario de Jong, director of the regional studies program at Comahue
University here. "People are questioning the concept of a single national center
of power that many of us blame for our problems."
Patagonia would be a sparsely populated but prosperous nation. Though fewer than
5 percent of Argentina's 37 million people live in Patagonia, the region
accounts for nearly half of the country's territory, much of its fresh water
supply and hydroelectric power and 80 percent of its oil and
Traditionally, resentment of the central government has been
especially strong in Patagonia, which regards itself as a neglected stepchild of
the rest of the country. The region was administered as a federal territory, its
residents unable to elect their own governors and congressional legislators,
until the 1950's.
Much of the momentum toward a change in relations with
the rest of Argentina has been provoked by a recent proposal to fuse Patagonia's
two northernmost provinces, Neuquén and Rio Negro. In an indication of just how
severe the country's economic collapse has become, the southernmost county of
bankrupt Buenos Aires province, Carmen de Patagones, is seeking to end that
affiliation so it can join the new province.
Nominally the union of the
two provinces, which is subject to a plebiscite, is simply an economy measure
aimed at reducing bureaucracy and waste. But as the magazine Parliamentarian
noted recently, "There are also sectors that warn of the possibility that
certain provinces are grouping themselves together as the first step toward an
eventual independence from Argentina."
Eduardo Amadeo, a spokesman for
President Eduardo Duhalde, dismissed such speculation as "sheer idiocy." He said
the move to merge the provinces was "a strategic and intelligent project that
sets an example for the whole country in terms of making better use of
resources." He described any notion that Argentina's economic crisis is unfairly
holding Patagonia back as "not based on objective data."
"If you look at
tax collection, levels of unemployment and average salary, you will see that
Patagonia is not the region that has suffered most," he said. "In fact, it is in
the best relative position."
As in the rest of Argentina, most residents
of Patagonia are of Spanish or Italian descent. But Patagonia has a higher
percentage of people of other European backgrounds — Yugoslavs, Welsh, Germans
and French. Jorge Sobisch, the governor of Neuquén, is of Croatian
Whether this is a major factor is unclear, but Patagonians
consider themselves different from other Argentines because of the region's
topography, its remoteness and the fact that most immigration here began barely
a century ago.
In a poll in May, 53 percent of people here who responded
said they wanted an independent Patagonia. The sentiment for separation was
strongest among young people, the group with the highest level of unemployment,
78 percent of whom said they favored secession.
"If you compare the area
north of the Rio Colorado with the area to the south, you will see that you
already have separate countries," said Elfo Kruteler, a French-language teacher
and artist here, referring to the traditional natural boundary of Patagonia.
"They take everything from here, our oil and gas and lumber and minerals, and
give us nothing in return except problems."
Governor Sobisch dismissed
talk of secession as far-fetched but said a new relationship between Patagonia
and Buenos Aires is essential. "Why should we be prisoners of a system that is
inefficient and concentrates all power in the capital?" he asked in an
Despite the disclaimers of Mr. Sobisch and other local
leaders, authorities in Buenos Aires are clearly concerned about a possible
dismembering of the country and the loss of income that would result. According
to a civilian who teaches at a military institution, one of the issues the
Argentine armed forces has begun examining is how to react in the event
Patagonia or any other region tries to secede.
Such concerns may be
stoked by the obvious and growing weakness of President Duhalde, who announced
in early July that he planned to leave office in March, nine months early. Since
he took office in January, Mr. Duhalde has repeatedly been forced to make
political concessions to the country's 23 provincial governors, especially the
14 from his own Peronist Party.
"Imagine if George Bush had to negotiate
with the governors of California, New York, Texas and Florida every time he
wanted to do something," said Carlos Escudé, a political commentator in Buenos
Aires. "This is a situation that is totally irregular and was never foreseen by
Mr. Amadeo, the presidential spokesman, acknowledged
that Mr. Duhalde leads "a transition government that was not elected by popular
vote, but by a special assembly, and as such has to negotiate with the governors
and Congress." But he also noted that Argentina is "a country with a strong,
deeply rooted tradition of federalism" and a Constitution that foresees and
The weakness of the central government has
led to instances of open defiance by provinces. Despite Mr. Duhalde's order to
stop printing new currencies, a step he took to satisfy demands of the
International Monetary Fund, Chabut Province, in Patagonia, announced in June
that it was issuing bonds that are to be used as parallel
Patagonians tend to see themselves victims of "incomplete
integration and induced underdevelopment," to cite the title of a new
"We are always the forgotten ones down here," complained Alícia
Rosa, 54, whose family was among the pioneers who migrated here a century
"Everything is measured by the quantity of votes, and since we don't
represent that many, every government in power in Buenos Aires has abandoned and
At the same time, there is a growing conviction that control
of the region's riches is slipping into the hands of foreign interests, with
Buenos Aires making no effort to defend national sovereignty. The Benetton
clothing company, the owner of more than two million acres of sheep ranches, is
now said to be the largest single landowner in the region, and other outsiders,
like the American billionaire Ted Turner, have bought ranches and ski
Adding to local resentment, both of the main oil companies in
Patagonia are also now foreign owned. One, a government monopoly that was the
region's largest employer until it was privatized in the 1990's, is in Spanish
hands; the other, privately held but weakened by the current crisis, is being
sold to the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobras.
Patagonia is even
awash with rumors that the bankrupt federal government is thinking of selling
off national parks to obtain desperately needed revenue.
According to such
stories, Argentina would also relinquish its claim to parts of Antarctica and
permit American troops to be stationed in Tierra del Fuego in return for relief
on the public debt of $141 billion, on which it defaulted in
Authorities in Buenos Aires have repeatedly dismissed such
notions as absurd. But alarmed provincial legislators in Chubut formally
rejected "the possibility of ceding national territory under any circumstances
for the purpose of canceling public debts."
"When a family is in debt, it
sells off a washing machine or television set, something it feels it can do
without," said Rubén Reveco, editor of a magazine of Patagonian history here.
"Because they are so distant from the centers of power, the inhabitants of
Patagonia feel they are in a similar position in relation to the rest of the
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