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Argentine president lauds 'greatest growth' run in a century

Argentine president lauds 'greatest growth' run in a century

President Cristina Fernandez vowed Saturday to expand low-cost loans for small businesses, cut unemployment and begin a nationwide infrastructure overhaul in a bid to continue what she called Argentina's greatest growth spurt in a century.
In her first annual address to Congress, Fernandez praised five straight years of more than 8 percent economic growth and promised to maintain budget surpluses and stockpile foreign currency reserves, which now top US$39 billion (euro25 billion), as a cushion against external economic shocks.
"Since 1900, this country has lived through recession every three years. What we have been able to achieve lately is the greatest growth period in Argentina in the last 100 years," she said in the nationally televised speech.
Fernandez vowed to trim the nation's 7.5 percent jobless rate, the lowest in 13 years, to 5 percent, although she gave no deadline or specific proposal. Unemployment rose to 22 percent during Argentina's 2002 economic crisis, a rate Fernandez said had "dishonored" the nation.
Praising her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner for lifting the country out of the 2002 crisis, the worst in Argentine history, Fernandez vowed her jobs bid would slash poverty rates below 10 percent. A quarter of Argentina's 39 million people are officially poor, down from about 50 percent in 2002.
She did not address the country's 9.8 percent annual inflation or its barriers to foreign investment, which critics say are choking what could be even greater growth. Independent economists claim that inflation is in fact at least double that rate, although the government has denied charges that it underreports data on prices.
Critics say Fernandez is relying too heavily on soaring prices for Argentina's main commodities exports, and neglecting to deal with US$6 billion (euro4 billion) in defaulted debt still owed to the so-called Paris Club of 19 creditor nations.
Her hesitance to set terms to repay that debt is limiting the flow of foreign investment and could stunt long-term growth, International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said in December.
Felipe Noguera, who heads a Buenos Aires political consulting firm, said that "Argentina has to resolve its Paris Club debt. But until then, I think it's getting away with a great situation owing to high commodities prices."
On energy issues, Fernandez dismissed media reports that suggest Argentina is on the brink of an energy crisis as winter looms in the southern hemisphere. She said Brazil and Argentina are continuing talks to share dwindling Bolivian natural gas supplies.
Argentina last year weathered sporadic gas shortages that briefly idled some gas-powered factories and taxi fleets, but did not affect residential customers.
Separately, the president insisted that Argentina's courts speed trials of dozens of former state security agents accused of human rights violations during the country's 1976-83 military rule, saying Argentines have a right to "demand that trials be brought to a conclusion."