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Daniela's Story Has All Argentina Up in Arms

International custody battle over tot perks up populace (and media) tired of dismal economic news

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AFTER years of economic growth, democratic consolidation, and a sprucing up that has helped return some cosmopolitan smartness to this tarnished city, Argentina has hit a rough spot.

The economy is sputtering, unemployment is up several points since November to more than 14 percent, and even Minister of the Economy Domingo Cavallo said last month that the country is in a recession.

As if that weren't enough, a number of the country's provinces are flirting with bankruptcy, unable to pay their employees and retiree pensions. And now Argentina's six-month marriage to Brazil within the southern South American common market, which caught many Argentines' imagination as a ticket to prosperity and international status, is experiencing its first serious lovers' quarrel.

Fortunately, the Argentines have had something to take their mind off all the unpleasantness. That captivating something is five-year-old Daniela Wilner - although after all the headlines, television programs, and radio commentary, she is now known simply as Daniela.

For weeks, interest in Daniela grew in the news as her divorced parents battled over where and with whom their little blond offspring should live. The case might sound so mundane today as to warrant nary a blink. But Daniela was born of two Argentines in Canada, where a court awarded the father custody.

Gabriela Osswald, Daniela's mother, was holed up in a Buenos Aires apartment with her daughter when a judge here ordered her to comply with the Canadian court. Suddenly, the child's story began to resemble a wildly popular soap opera.

The story took on jingoistic hues, with Argentines siding with Daniela's mother. She is la mama, people said, and the mama has the irreproachable wisdom to want to live with the child in Argentina, no matter what a foreign judge says.

At times, 500 demonstrators - mostly mothers - gathered outside the apartment chanting ''Argentina, Argentina.'' One passerby asked aloud if the object of their outburst was a ''little piece'' of the Falkland Islands, referring to the 1982 failed attempt by Argentina to seize the islands off its coast from the British.

National soccer idol Diego Maradona was just one prominent personality to jump into the fray.

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