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Couchepin in Argentina amid general strike

The economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, is continuing a trade visit to Argentina despite a general strike, which began on Thursday. The action was called to protest at austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Parts of the country came to a virtual standstill as the 36-hour strike took hold and thousands of workers in the transport, energy and health sectors withdrew their labour.

Despite Argentina's severe economic problems - the country has run up debts of $150 billion (SFr270 billion) - Swiss political and business leaders are anxious to strengthen trade ties. With a population of 37 million and per capita income of $8,000 a year, Argentina is seen as a key potential market.

Couchepin told reporters in Buenos Aires that Argentina remained an attractive trading partner for Switzerland. He said this was borne out by the fact that the level of Swiss investment in Argentina remained constant throughout the recession of 1999.

Part of the aim of the visit - which ends on Saturday - is to negotiate a free trade agreement with the South American trading bloc, Mercosur, Couchepin said.

Bilateral agreements are also on the agenda. On Thursday, the economics minister signed a protocol with his Argentinian counterpart, Jose Luis Machinea, on changes to the 1997 treaty on avoiding double taxation.

Couchepin's visit is part of a Latin American tour, which has already taken him to Chile. His next stop is Mexico, where he is due to sign a free trade deal on behalf of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

swissinfo with agencies

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