BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA- This Christmas, Argentine newspapers carried melancholy letters from children asking why their parents told them not to write a wish list.
"Somebody stole my Christmas and somebody robbed me of my illusions of an extra dose of happiness," 14-year-old Ariel Minglanesio wrote to the newspaper La Prensa. "I want to know why my mother decided not to put up a Christmas tree this year. Tell me the names of those responsible so someone can punish them."
In this moody city where the sounds of tango float into the street from waterfront bars, many Buenos Aires residents believe the thieves who stole Christmas were politicians in elegant Italian suits.
Few people blame the international financial community for the chaotic state of the national economy that led to last week's violent demonstrations. Graffiti scrawled on dozens of government buildings and banks call the government officials who saddled Argentina with $132 billion in foreign debt ladrones (thieves) and traidores (traitors).
Many Argentines have placed their hope in Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, the interim president who has a toothy smile and back-slapping ways. His decision to suspend payments on the country's international debt and promise to create one million jobs brought raves from the people.
But in true Argentine fashion, they are hopeful to the point of despair. The dream of European affluence in geographic isolation in the far south of Latin America was lost, or squandered, long ago.
The Christmas from the culture that gave Argentina plenty of McDonald's and TGI Friday's simply did not happen this year. Storeowners said holiday sales were down 50 percent, despite last-minute shopping after Rodriguez Saa took over Sunday.
At the almost empty Restoran Tocororo, a once wildly successful Cuban restaurant, the waiters had little to do but watch Argentina's round-the-clock Solo Tango channel.
A Buenos Aires mental health specialist - there are supposedly more psychiatrists per capita in this city than in any other capital or large city in the world - said the country was suffering from a mass depression.
"Even the children are suffering," said Silvia Dominguez, a Columbia University graduate and marriage counselor. "They knew long ago there was no Santa Claus. They are very wise beyond their years."
"Christmas in Buenos Aires is a disaster," said Hernan Perez, a Cuban emigre. "It is a disaster here - the Argentine equivalent of the attack on the World Trade Center.
"And to think I came here to escape the economic calamity of my own country, because I thought that Argentina was progressive and I could have a real future."
But this is still the land of promise, even though there is some sentiment in these hard times for the dictatorial style of Gen. Juan Domingo Peron, and for his wife, Eva, and the saintly image she created for herself as a patron of the poor.
Polo, cricket and yachting are still genteel pursuits of the very rich. Immigrants are still arriving, attracted by the image of an Argentina that could be great.