Tragic News from Buenos Aires

Former Argentine President Néstor Kirchner died Wednesday, October 27 at his home in El Calafate, Argentina after suffering from congestive heart failure. Néstor and his wife, current President Cristina Kirchner, had gone to the Patagonian town of El Calafate in order to be counted for the national census. At 60 years, his death came as a surprise to the nation even though his cardiac issues began much earlier in the year.

After his election in 2003, Néstor came to see his chief responsibility as president to repair a country left demoralized and in disarray after the failed presidency of Fernando de la Rúa. Unhinged just days after his election, de la Rúa represented an alliance of left-leaning and liberal groups which were challenging various factions of the Peronist party. In the midst of the country’s deepening economic crisis, the de la Rúa administration was expected to reinvigorate the economy after its steep decline under the corruption-ridden government of Carlos Menem. But following the economy’s utter collapse in 2001 and corruption within the de la Rúa administration, a series of violent protests ultimately led to resignation.

In many respects, Kirchner will be looked upon as a genuine hero. In essence, Kirchner’s presidency fell into his lap after his opponent and former President Carlos Menem suddenly dropped out of the race. Kirchner was catapulted into one of the most menacing economic crises in Argentina’s history, in which more than half of the country was living in poverty and the nation’s debt exceeded USD 178 billion. His ability to take swift and decisive steps towards economic repair were somewhat surprising, considering that he was not even expected to win the presidency. But by 2006, the country was well on its way to recovery, and was witnessing a growth in the economy by an average of 9 percent. In the same year, the government paid off the last of its debt to the International Monetary Fund, which was seen by many Argentines as the culprit behind the nation’s economic crisis. After Buenos Aires made its final payment, Kirchner vowed to cut off negotiations with the organization. In conjunction with these major improvements in the economy, his demonstrated commitment to tackling poverty and unemployment led to the a sharp incline in the president’s approval ratings.

Néstor will undoubtedly be recognized for far more than his key role in repairing the economy. He also had an ability to demand accountability and transparency within the country’s military that none of his precursors were able to manifest. To the amazement of many Argentines, he stood courageously against brutal military powers who controlled the country during the dictatorship of 1976-1983, a period known as the “Dirty War.” Kirchner insisted that Congress repeal two amnesty laws, which, in effect, had protected the former military officials responsible for the abuse and death of thousands of innocent Argentines during this period. The former president was, in addition, a major advocate for the observance of human rights. Moreover, he served as the leader of several organizations such as Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, committed to fight for justice for the victims of military rule.

Concerning his foreign policy initiatives, Kirchner sought to improve relations with other Mercosur nations while shrinking Washington’s influence in the country. He worked overtime to reconstruct Buenos Aires’ ties within South America, particularly emphasizing its political links with Brazil. In a political strategy that was unpopular with many Argentines, he formed close relations with other Latin American leaders, notably Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavéz.

At the end of his term, President Kirchner worked with his wife, Cristina, to ensure a smooth transition into her presidency. Although he was no longer president, Kirchner remained a hugely influential political figure as the country’s National Deputy and congressman of the Peronist Party. Most notably, he provided a great deal of moral and strategic support for Cristina during her first years as president. Given his full intention to run for reelection in 2011, the ramifications of Néstor’s death are certainly weighty. Indeed, his passing marks an end to the husband-and-wife duo’s long-standing grasp on Argentina’s government and leaves the direction of the Peronist movement in serious doubt. It is certain to be a trying next few months for President Cristina Kirchner, as she must mourn Néstor’s loss while maintaining command of the country for the first time without the assistance of her husband and mentor.