By Evan Musgrave
An enchanting, enigmatic force in Argentinian political and cultural life since his election in 2003, former president Néstor Carlos Kirchner’s death has come as a devastating blow to hopes of a different future for the country under the Kirchnerist banner. Life in Argentina ground to a halt in the days after his passing, and citizens filled the streets in a massive galvanised sentiment unseen since the financial crisis of the early 2000s, which Kirchner is credited with solving.
Born in the southernmost province of Santa Cruz, Kirchner attended his local public school, and went on to study law at the University of La Plata where he met his wife, current President Cristina de Fernández de Kirchner. In 1986, Kirchner became mayor of Río Gallegos, and following his political success in this area, he was elected governor of Santa Cruz in 1991. His policies reflected his left-wing ideology and he gained notoriety in openly criticising the performance of then-president Carlos Menem.
In 1999 Argentina entered a crippling economic crisis. After years of sky-rocketing inflation and allegations of corruption, investors quickly pulled out of the country. As a result, many began withdrawing large sums from their bank accounts and exchanging the Argentinian peso for the US dollar. The Government reacted by essentially freezing all bank accounts for 12 months, allowing only minor sums to be withdrawn. Protesting and rioting became a daily occurrence with banks and foreign businesses being targeted by mobs. In late 2001, amidst deaths from clashes between rioters and police, president Fernando De La Rua absconded via helicopter from Buenos Aires. With no vice-president in place, a leadership crisis ensued, exacerbating the country’s many problems.
After a series of stand-in presidents attempted to contain the financial mess, an election was called in which the Santa Cruz governor emerged as an unlikely contender for the seat with the Centrist Peronist Justicialist Party. In a runoff with Menem, the pre-crisis president decided to stand down amidst polls indicating a 30 to 40 percent preference for Kirchner.
The newly-elected president inherited a country with a $178bn debt, and an impoverished society which had, at the turn of the previous century, been one of the wealthiest in the entire world.
To reformat the nation, Kirchner sought to return to a somewhat agrarian focus. He exploited the high price of soy, personally promoting it to the emerging Chinese market, and took advantage of the competitive export rates for Argentine beef, while discouraging imports, in an endeavour to rebuild the country from the ground up. Throughout his presidency he maintained an emphasis on remodelling at a grassroots level, pleasing those from the provinces while deftly managing urgent macro-economic issues, handling foreign relations, while assuaging concerns of those in the capital.
His presidency successfully rallied for import substitution, provided accessible credit for small business, set aside new funds for social welfare and mounted an aggressive attack on tax evasion.
Most remarkable was his knowledge of the complacency which had so often plagued the region in the past. As Argentina’s economy bounced back, powered by its rich exports, its new-found foreign investment and imports flooded the market with US dollars which began to show signs of strangling the competitiveness of the peso. At this point, Kirchner’s cabinet enacted a series of reforms, aimed at limiting speculative foreign investment from destabilising the market.
During his presidency real GDP grew between 8.5 and 9.2 percent each year, and unemployment was contained to around 8.5 percent for most of his tenure, an impressive figure, owing to the poor flow of capital arising as a hangover from businesses reinvesting funds abroad during the crisis.
In addition to these feats, Kirchner’s cabinet firmly negotiated a deal restructuring 76 percent of Argentina’s external debt at a much lower nominal value of 25 to 30 percent and at longer terms.
Kirchner additionally went before the UN Assembly in 2004, denouncing the IMF as an organisation and implicitly accusing it of departing from its original goal of encouraging economic development in its creditors. The structural adjustment programmes put in place by the IMF had led him to believe that a more independent route was needed to rebuild the critically balanced nation.
His social welfare reforms paid dividends later on in his presidency with the numnber of those living below the poverty line dropping around 37 percent overall during his tenure.
He was universally lauded for making significant changes to the justice system by overturning amnesty laws and encouraging the courts to go ahead with the trials of hundreds involved in the corrupt dictatorship.
In 2007 he surprisingly did not run for re-election amidst favourable public opinion, but rather promoted his wife, Cristina, as his successor in a successful campaign. Néstor had been expected by many to return in the 2011 to a likely landslide win.
Among Peronists and opposition voices, Kirchner will be remembered as a man who filled a perilous political vacuum. Through him Argentina was placed on a strongly independent path with stable regional cooperation.
His power rested on a paradox: He was at once a strong leader prone to controversial political showdowns yet he remained an amiable, charismatic character who managed to weather criticism.
Among Argentinians and foreign commentators alike Néstor was seen as the power behind the throne of the nation. His death is likely to force his widow to build new alliances and could spark challenges within her own party, even though at present her approval rating stands at 70 percent.
The future of Kirchnerism will depend on how she can weather this truly devastating loss. For the moment opposition leaders will need to endure a wave of public sympathy as their ratings plummet.
Argentina today sits in a comfortable position as the wealthiest nation per capita in South America with a liberal and progressive society and a much stronger regional trade system. The country is additionally set to benefit from the upcoming Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup in Brazil as well as the Copa América tournament in the summer of 2011.
While the legacy of the last decade in Latin America’s politics remains uncertain, Kirchner’s standalone role as a strong reformer and innovative centrist leader will be remembered in this region for decades to come.