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Life in Argentina's free-fall economy

How three families in this once-rich country are dealing with the financial crisis

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The gentle jingle-jangle of a thousand keys barely wafts to the plaza's edge in central Buenos Aires. But the ire behind the gesture is thunderous.

"It's the corruption and greed of the entire political class, thinking only of its own pocket, that has sunk us," says Norma Trezza, shaking the keys to her home and a small plastic-bag factory - the family patrimony being tossed in Argentina's financial maelstrom.

The anger represented by clinking keys of Mrs. Trezza and other families in Argentina also carries a profound message to the far corners of Latin America and beyond. The crisis here comes at a time when many developing nations are questioning whether the international models of free-market economics and representative democracy promoted by the United States and Western Europe will work for them.

For Argentina, the questioning is especially sharp, because it comes from amid poverty where once there was wealth.

Less than a century ago, Argentina was more prosperous than Spain, Italy, or even France. Today, 4 in 10 Argentines live in poverty, and a generation of 20-somethings are trying to catch the next plane for the European homelands of their great-grandparents.

Compelled for the first time in her life to take public action, Mrs. Trezza says, "the mentality of the whole country has to change. We have to mature as a people and take responsibility for the future. We left a decade of big change to the politicians," she adds, "and look where it got us."

Since public protests began on Dec. 19 - in reaction to government restrictions on the public's access to its own cash and savings - Argentina has been through four presidents, before settling, grudgingly, on Eduardo Duhalde. The government is bankrupt, the banks fear deposit runs when controls ease, and the peso, after a decade of equal value with the dollar, has lost more than half its value.

The country waits on edge as the national currency begins a full free float today. How the peso fares will be one clue to prospects for the government's initial economic reforms announced last week, and to public confidence in Argentina's future.

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