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Argentine leader's polling plunges as peso drops

Michael Warren, Associated Press

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2013 file photo, businessman Lazaro Baez arrives to the cemetery in Rio Gallegos, Argentina, to attend the burial of the mother of late president Nestor Kirchner. A prosecutor charged Baez of alleged money laundering on Friday, May 3, 2013. Baez is a businessman close to the late former President Nestor Kirchner and his wife, current President Cristina Fernandez. (AP Photo/Francisco Munoz, OPI Santa Cruz, File)

BUENOS AIRES (AP) -- Cristina Fernandez has ruled out any currency devaluation while she's president of Argentina, and dismissed as election-year politics a brewing scandal over allegations of money laundering by businessmen close to her and her late husband Nestor Kirchner.

But as inflation soars, central bank reserves drop and the economy slows, hamstrung by currency controls that make doing legal business more difficult, many Argentines are losing faith in the peso, and in her leadership as well.

A closely watched sign of the country's economic future is the illegal currency market, where Argentines are increasingly desperate to ditch their pesos as inflation climbs above 25 percent a year. Amid fears of a potential currency shock, they're now trading nearly 10 pesos for each dollar — close to half the official value of 5.2.

This "blue dollar" trading remains marginal compared to the overall economy, but it's a free market, stubbornly beyond the government's control, and as such, it's increasingly being looked at by Argentines trying to protect their pocketbooks. The central bank periodically releases dollars to rein it in, but that's risky as well, now that Argentina's reserves have dropped by more than 20 percent, to $39.75 billion.

New polls suggest Fernandez has lost more than half the support she had when re-elected in October 2011, including a 10-point ratings drop in the days since a scandal broke on April 14 over allegations that Kirchner ally and businessman Lazaro Baez spirited millions in cash out of Argentina in private planes.

A survey by the Management & Fit agency shows only 29 percent approval of Fernandez's leadership, down from 64 percent when she was re-elected. That poll of 2,000 Argentines, taken just after the scandal broke, had an error margin of 2.3 percentage points.

A separate survey about her personal image showed 48 percent viewed it as positive after the scandal broke, down from 57 percent before. A total of 1,000 Argentines responded to that survey by the Ipsos-Mora firm, which had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Fernandez waved away the trouble in a speech at the Casa Rosada government house Monday night.

"Those who want to make money at the cost of a devaluation that the people will have to pay for will have to wait for another government," she declared. History shows that devaluations have only hurt most Argentines, while enabling the financial sector to make huge gains "off the hunger, misery and de-industrialization of the country," she warned.

"They're raising this idea again because an election period is approaching," she added. "Every time there's an election, on side there's the economy and on the other, the scandals. It's typical of every election."

That brief reference to scandals was her first comment yet about allegations that Baez, a longtime ally of the Kirchners, had used his access to the presidential couple to make huge profits that he laundered by having aides fly the cash out of the country in mysterious trips on private planes.

The allegations, made by former Baez associates in televised interviews with investigative journalist Jorge Lanata, have made for sensational television in Argentina, and a judge agreed to open a formal investigation of Baez and his associates.

Lanata struck closer still to the president on Sunday night, interviewing Kirchner's former secretary, Miriam Quiroga, who described bags full of cash in the Casa Rosada. She said they were delivered to the southern province of Santa Cruz, where Baez based his business empire and the Kirchners have several homes. Quiroga also alleged that the Kirchners had vaults built to hold the cash.

Judge Julian Ercolini subpoenaed Quiroga to testify in the widening criminal investigation by prosecutor Guillermo Marijuan, and Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbo ordered additional police protection for the prosecutor, who reported receiving at least two threats that his young daughters will be killed if he doesn't drop the probe.

Meanwhile, Fernandez faced a new challenge on her left flank: the launching Tuesday of a new political party by her former ally, union boss Hugo Moyano, who has become one of her toughest critics. Moyano plans to run lists of candidates under his "Culture, Education and Jobs" banner in October's midterm elections.


Associated Press Writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.