Six of the eight light bulbs along the main corridor of the Hospital of the Miracles had burned out. The semi-darkness softened the impact of the scarred walls and the puddles of water.
Dr. Manfredo Aguilera, the hospital director, said there had been another work stoppage that morning. Workers were agitating--in the last week of April--to be paid their salaries for March.
Aguilera said that the only major physical improvement in recent years to this 95-year-old government hospital, where an average of 140,000 patients are treated annually, is a new refrigeration unit in the morgue.
In pre-Columbian times, Salta, in northwestern Argentina, was a major trade route between local tribes and the Incas. Spanish conquistadors settled here in 1582 and made it an important crossroads at a time when Buenos Aires, the future capital, was a mosquito-ridden swamp.
Salta and other poor provinces feel that once again they are in the vanguard in Argentina--but this time the road leads toward economic disintegration. The debate is over who is most deserving of blame, the Peronist party, which runs most provincial governments, or the Radical Civic Union, the party that rules the central government in Buenos Aires. The answer will help determine whether Carlos Saul Menem of the Peronist club of provincial governors defeats the Radical party's Eduardo Cesar Angeloz, the underdog, in Sunday's presidential election.
In the provinces today, people regard Buenos Aires as a haughty enclave oblivious to the poverty and hardship of the interior.
The national economic disaster, magnified in the provinces, has made inflation worse and worse--about 40% in April, or well over 1,000% a year. Since February, the Argentine currency has plunged from 17 australs to the dollar to more than 100. On April 28, when the banks were closed because the government was literally running out of paper money, the austral closed at 85 to the dollar.
Because of price uncertainty, pharmaceutical companies have reduced output and slowed sales, often demanding cash on delivery. In an effort to prevent shortages, doctors were warned to issue only emergency prescriptions.
Aguilera said his hospital here in the provincial capital brought suit in April against a supplier who had refused to deliver medicines because inflation had sent prices up by between 100% and 150%. The hospital is one of the main outpatient clinics in this city of 300,000.
In Villa Asuncion, one of the slums that form a semicircle around the old town of Salta, a brightly painted white clinic, five months old, has pride of place in a neighborhood of cinder-block shacks with corrugated iron roofs held in place by stones.
There, Dr. Beatriz Tessel de Rojas said that malnutrition has increased in recent months as the economic crisis deepened. People receive flour, sugar and other basics once a month from the central government. Respiratory infections are common in winter, and diarrhea in summer.
"The national government blames the province, and the province blames the central government, and the crisis just worsens," said Tessel, who is paid 8,000 australs a month--about $100--to run the clinic.
Not far away, in the cool stone house of Rosalia Viveros de Arias, eight people share four beds. The woman said her husband works for the city and is paid 2,500 australs a month, about $31. She can no longer afford natural gas, she said, so she cooks over a wood fire.
"I am historically a Peronist, but I am not sure how I will vote," she said. "With all the strikes, I am totally unsure about this provincial government."
A young mother, Elena Ramos, whose husband holds down two jobs, said angrily: "The system is corrupt. There is uncertainty. The people are unhealthy because they are hungry, while a corrupt leading class fills its pockets."
She blamed President Raul Alfonsin for "serving the United States" adding: "They don't consider the situation of the Argentine workers. They want us to pay the foreign debt, but they don't pay the internal debt to the workers."
Argentina owes nearly $60 billion to foreign creditors, the third-highest foreign debt among developing countries, after Brazil and Mexico. The government has made virtually no payments in a year and is more than $2.3 billion in arrears.
Luis Mauri, president of the Radical party in Salta, had a different target to blame for the crisis. Argentina had functioned poorly, he said, since Juan D. Peron became president in 1946 and began expanding the state bureaucracy, beginning an era of inflation.
"There were rich governments and poor people," he said.
Mauri, who insists that the Radicals can win in Salta, said the discontent is directed more at the Peronist provincial government than at the Radicals in Buenos Aires. He noted that when 24 municipal workers went on a hunger strike for nine days in early April, there were calls from the pro-Peronist labor unions for the governor's resignation.
The public payroll, Mauri said, has grown from 25,000 people to 58,000 under the Peronists, and the people are paid in bonds, a form of provincial currency that is useless elsewhere. Three other Peronist provinces, including candidate Menem's La Rioja, also use bonds.
People outside the political fray are also fed up with both sides and worried about the danger of a social upheaval.
'We All Have Fear'
Dr. Norberto Volante, deputy head of Salta's Children's Hospital, said: "We all have a lot of fear. The first stone that is thrown will unleash it. I've seen people literally crying. They know their money won't last until the end of the month. We find ourselves in a country where people say, 'It can't be done.' First that was the mentality, now it's the reality. So morale has vanished.
"Whoever wins the election is going to have to sit down at a table with all sides and ask, 'Where do we start?' "
Volante's Peronist boss, Dr. Mario Zaidenberg, agreed, saying: "There can't be a Peronist or a Radical solution. There has to be an Argentine solution."
In the poor sections of Salta, 21% of the children under age 2 are malnourished, and only a third of the families have purified drinking water in their homes, said Jose Puca, director of a health clinic.
The clinic's nutritionist, Ana Inez Reartes, said: "The situation has worsened for everyone. Anti-Americanism is growing among many people, who blame the rich countries. Others blame the 'mafias' in business and government for taking advantage, for speculating. Here there is a feeling that the state has to solve everything."