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Cash-Poor Military in Argentina Puts Out the 'For Sale' Signs

Alon the banks of the Rio de la Plata, on a stretch of land not far from downtown Buenos Aires, is the hollow shell of a shipyard plant rising tall from a field of reeds and scrub grass.

High up under the eaves, the windows are smashed and shattered. A pile of steel beams, cranes, and the caps of submarine towers sit rusting outside, exposed to the moist, gusty winds.

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Pharaoh-like in its scale and size, the plant was built in the 1970s during Juan Peron's second presidential term to churn out top-grade submarines, part of a grand plan to upgrade Argentina's military might and expand its role in the region.

Now seven years after President Carlos Saul Menem shut it down, scrapping the $1.2 billion submarine program in a push to slash military spending, it is the relic of another age, one of hundreds of military properties now closed and obsolete.

Near the yard are dozens of other abandoned military properties - a helicopter launch and landing port, a naval observatory, an Army training camp, a Coast Guard base. They are the apparatus of a bygone military era. Destroyers, middles sagging, sway softly in a dock drenched in oil, obscured by drooping willow trees. Rows of Army barracks are boarded up behind punctured, vine-covered fences.

The neglected properties sit on some of the most valuable tracts of open land in this city of 6 million crammed into towering neighborhoods of concrete and steel. They occupy 100 prime acres that stretch along the wide river.

Amid steep budget cuts that have strained the military's ability to pay for basic supplies and equipment, military officials are starting to explore ways to squeeze profit from idle properties.

Today, the military struggles to meet even the basic expenses needed to run its dwindling empire. Officers say the tight budget compromises its ability to defend Argentina's borders, train troops, and maintain equipment.

The situation has turned some branches to desperate means to raise cash. One such scheme was the covert sale last year by the military munitions factory, Fabricaciones Militares, of arms to Ecuador for use in a border clash with Argentina's longtime ally, Peru. The high-profile scandal led in July to the resignation of Defense Minister Oscar Camilion.

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Already, military officials are evaluating a proposal from a large Italian shopping company, Feria de Milan, to convert the shipyard into a sprawling multipurpose shopping mall. They are also courting alliances with developers, international investors, and other branches of the government interested in developing and leasing the highly coveted lands. Among the other properties to be sold into private hands is Ezeiza, the Buenos Aires International Airport, as well as 57 other airports and airstrips, naval ports, and military-owned weapons and munitions factories.

At bases or other military facilities still in service, the armed forces are seeking to share the costs of running them with the local city or county, offering to open up for public use parts of bases long reserved for military personnel. At a naval base in Punta Indio, in the province of Buenos Aires, admirals have turned over to the city a large, well-equipped military hospital that now serves a community that before had to travel three towns away for medical care.

"For so long, the military's properties - fenced in and barbed with wire - were synonymous with terror and the 'dirty war' purges of the disappeared," wrote La Nacion, Argentina's most respected newspaper, in a recent editorial.

"Opening them up to outsiders and civilians and members of communities is a welcome change, an unprecedented opportunity ... for dialogue, a spirit of compatibility between community and military we've long lacked in Argentina."

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