Argentina minister ducks inflation question, causes stir

BUENOS AIRES, April 25 Thu Apr 25, 2013 3:16pm EDT

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BUENOS AIRES, April 25 (Reuters) - Argentina's top economic official has caused a stir by abruptly cutting short an interview when a reporter pressed him on the accuracy of official inflation data, which most independent economists say is severely doctored.

The reporter for Greece's Skai TV asked Economy Minister Hernan Lorenzino what Argentina's inflation rate was. When Lorenzino responded that it was about 10.2 percent - less than half the rate estimated by outside analysts - the reporter pointed out that the International Monetary Fund warned Argentina about its poor data last year.

She then asked Lorenzino how the government plans to address the IMF's concerns.

"Look ... I'll repeat to you again. I think that, eh, it's a ... Can we cut this off? Sorry," Lorenzino replied.

Skai TV then showed footage in which Lorenzino was heard speaking to the reporter off-camera.

"I want to go," he said. "And, what's more - the truth: Speaking about inflation statistics in Argentina is complex, OK? I prefer to stick with the last answer I gave you, and not delve into the subject."

The interview took place in December and is part of an hour-long documentary that aired in Greece on Tuesday, the reporter, Eleni Varvitsiotis, told Reuters by telephone. The clip caught fire on social media in Argentina on Wednesday and the hashtag #mequieroir - "I want to go," in Spanish - was trending on Twitter.

The clip seemed to strike a nerve for several reasons.

Inflation has been running at around 25 percent for several years, according to private estimates, but has recently shown signs of causing greater pain for Argentines as Latin America's No. 3 economy sharply slowed over the past year.

An estimated 1 million people flooded the streets of Buenos Aires last week in one of the biggest demonstrations against leftist President Cristina Fernandez in years. Many people, in interviews, complained about her government's "lies" as they beat pots and pans in protest.

Unreliable official data, and a generally hostile business climate, is often cited in private by executives as a reason for postponing projects and investments. By underreporting inflation, Argentina has cost creditors millions of dollars because some bonds are linked to price data.

Lorenzino's comments also drew attention because of their rarity - Argentine officials seldom give interviews to independent journalists, meaning that seeing an official held to account for inflation was unusual in itself.

A spokeswoman at the economy ministry said she had no further comment on the Skai TV interview.

The interview recalled an incident last September when Fernandez spoke at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. When a student asked her about inflation, she implied that data in the United States is misleading, too.

Varvitsiotis, the reporter, said she visited Argentina to examine how the country has fared since a major economic meltdown and debt default in 2001, which she said might hold lessons for Greece, itself mired in a severe debt crisis.

During her 10 days in Buenos Aires, she said most Argentines told her inflation was their number-one concern.

"Everyone talked about it. So how was I supposed to meet with the economy minister and not ask him about inflation?" Varvitsiotis said. "I didn't expect him to get upset."

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