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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Debt-Ridden Argentina Gets New President

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, a 54-year-old provincial governor, was sworn in as Argentina's interim president Sunday, saying he will suspend foreign debt payments as he takes over from the fallen government of Fernando de la Rua until a March election.

Moments after taking his oath in Congress, where lawmakers capped a 15-hour all-night session naming him president, Rodriguez Saa said in an inaugural address that Argentines would have priority over crippling debt payments.

"Let's take the bull by the horns. We are going to talk about the foreign debt," said Rodriguez Saa, adding, "the Argentine state will suspend the payment of the foreign debt."

He stressed that this did not mean Argentina would permanently shun its obligations, which now amount to $132 billion. But he said that in the meantime, money saved from the payments would be diverted into job creation and social development programs.

The announcement drew cheers from a packed congressional gallery after the all-night session ushering in his government. Rodriguez Saa, who hails from the province of San Luis and is Argentina's longest-serving governor, is to stay in office until a March 3 election.

Rodriguez Saa was appointed interim president by a vote of 169-138, capping the marathon debate over terms of his caretaker presidency. He took over from Senate leader Ramon Puerta, who was serving as acting president while congressional leaders sought a replacement for de la Rua.

De la Rua resigned Thursday, halfway through a four-year term, ousted by popular protests against his austerity measures.

The new president suggested that de la Rua's policies had punished ordinary Argentines at the expense of paying off the crushing debt to international banks and financial agencies.

"They gave priority to the payment of ... the foreign debt over the payment of the debt to its own people," Rodriguez Saa said, eliciting shouts from the crowd of "Argentina! Argentina!"

In his inaugural address, he also lamented the "irreparable losses" caused by deadly rioting against the de la Rua government. He said he would seek a fund to indemnify the victims of two days of looting and rioting that claimed 26 lives and left more than 200 injured.

He suggested money that would have gone to debt repayment would now be channeled into social assistance for the poor and into the creation of jobs. The jobless rate is at 18.3 percent, a near record, with 40 percent of the 36 million population at or near the poverty line.

"I see a new republic. Today the transformation of the country begins," he said. "The social ills of our society are our biggest problem."

He said he would not tolerate a devaluation or accept the U.S. dollar as Argentina's legal currency. But he said he would introduce a third coinage, still without name, to "inject liquidity" and get money into the hands of ordinary Argentines.

The move to create a parallel currency is essentially a license to print extra money. While he defended Argentina's one-to-one peg between the peso and the dollar, his plan to print an extra currency appeared to signal a radical departure from a decade-old currency regime.

In a bid for popular support, he raised cheers with a pledge to cut back politicians' salaries.

"I ask your help that our plans can be carried out as quickly as possible to reach our dream of creating jobs," said the new president, who added he would defend the rights of ordinary Argentines to a "just salary."

Rodriguez Saa was chosen unanimously Friday by the Peronists to take over from Puerta, who was serving as acting president for 48 hours while congressional leaders sought a replacement.

But the session that began Saturday night dragged on past dawn Sunday as lawmakers negotiated the length of Rodriguez Saa's term and an election date.

Rodriguez Saa is to serve in the job -- which many in his own Peronist party spurned -- until the new elections. Whoever is elected will then finish out the two years of de la Rua's term.

His appointment restores Argentina's largest party, the Peronists, as the country's dominant political force after the worst unrest since the late 1980s, when another financial crisis gripped this country of 36 million people.

While serving as governor of San Luis province in western Argentina the past 18 years, he was known for colorful rhetoric and a populist touch, an image far different from de la Rua's solemn, technocratic style.

De la Rua stepped down after two days of street protests, food riots and supermarket looting. Leaving halfway through his four-year term, de la Rua complained the Peronists forced him from office by rejecting his call to join a government of national unity.