BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Outside Argentina's Congress building, protesters upset about a government freeze on bank deposits recently swarmed around lawmaker Franco Caviglia and threatened harm, forcing him to scamper into a bar for protection until police arrived.
Hours earlier, other protesters surrounded an obscure congressional adviser and hurled insults and expletives at him. Also, former Planning Minister Roberto Dromi, who oversaw important privatization projects in the early 1990s, was met by angry citizens shouting threats when he stepped out of a car in downtown Buenos Aires. Police dispersed the crowd.
Across the country, similar confrontations happen daily. Argentines are angry and frustrated over the collapsed economy, and they're taking it out on the political establishment.
No longer can politicians walk the streets without fearing a sudden assault.
"I wouldn't be surprised if in the next two or three months a prominent politician is killed by a mob in the streets," said Atilio Boron, executive secretary of the Latin American Social Sciences Board.
A survey last month by the local branch of Gallup found that almost 90 percent of Argentines who were questioned blamed the country's problems on government mismanagement. About 73 percent blamed corruption.
The dark mood has been building. Last year, a best-selling book was titled Politician, I Hate You. In a leading newsmagazine last month, guest columnists debated whether citizens had the right to beat up and kill Argentine politicians.
"People are frustrated because successive governments promised much" and achieved only deeper economic problems, said Sen. Rodolfo Terragno. He warned of degrading social conditions and was booted out in October 2000 as Cabinet chief for President Fernando de la Rua, who was brought down by social protests Dec. 20.
"People aren't taking it anymore because we don't have an economy, there are no social services, we don't have judges who defend us," Alicia Gonzalez, a retiree, said amid the din of a pot-banging protest outside the supreme court. "This movement must grow and grow and grow, and something must happen to get rid of these pigs who have spent all our money."
Gonzalez is an average Argentine who brought an empty can and spoon to make noise in front of the court after learning from television that a spontaneous protest had started.
"Popular assemblies are cropping up in neighborhoods. It's the first time someone old like me has seen this. People are no longer thinking of their pesos that were stolen, but [of] political solutions, and this will make a new country," she said.
How all this anger translates into politics has no answer yet. Argentines have not known political peace in decades, bouncing from military dictatorships to hyperinflation to a brief period of economic well-being and then to the current disaster.
"More than anyone, we in Latin countries [need] a father [figure] to protect us. The masses need to follow a leader," said Hebe Pascuzzi, a psychologist protesting outside the court. "The masses are looking for a new ideal to believe in, but we want an honest one."
In the 1940s, they turned to the magnetic Juan Peron, a military officer, and his charismatic wife, Evita, but the prosperity they promised proved illusory. Subsequent decades were filled with failed elections and failed military leaders.
For about 50 years, ending in the mid-1980s, each elected president was forced from office by the generals before finishing his term. Today, the men in uniform have been as discredited as their civilian counterparts.
The solution for some Argentines is elections. Although March elections had been promised when violent protests drove de la Rua from the presidency, Eduardo Duhalde was selected by congress Jan. 2 to finish out the term, which ends next year.
But most Argentines see Duhalde as part of the corrupt ruling class that has sunk the country, and he is trying hard to ingratiate himself with angry citizens. He told local radio this week that if he were not president, he, too, would be in the streets protesting.