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4 December 2006

The quiet Peronist who leads the way

Argentina - Néstor Kirchner

By Sophie Morris

Evita is still Argentina’s most notorious export. Sixty years since her husband, Juan Perón, took power, the former first lady wows the fans in the West End of London. Back home in Buenos Aires the story isn’t so different. This time, however, it is Néstor Kirchner waving from the balcony of the pink presidential palace at the foot of Plaza de Mayo. Kirchner is flanked by his wife, Cristina Fernández, a stylish senator and tireless mouthpiece for her husband’s government. For good reason, he is confident of being elected to another four-year term in 2007. It has not gone unnoticed that Cristina speaks like Eva Perón.

Kirchner came to power in 2003 with just 22 per cent of the vote. A left-leaning Peronist of Swiss and Croatian descent, he inherited a country at the nadir of its fortunes. Before the First World War, Argentina was as rich as France and Germany. By the end of the 20th century myopic populism and violent military leadership had squandered the country’s resources. Then, in 2001, a default on foreign debt repayments unleashed an economic catastrophe. Five presidents bowed out in quick succession: 20 per cent unemployment, a suddenly impoverished middle class and more than $170bn worth of debt formed the backdrop to Kirchner’s election.

Kirchner won by turning his back on the United States. Argentina cancelled the “automatic alignment” policy with Washington that it had assumed in the 1990s to encourage foreign trade. The president stood up to the International Monetary Fund, enacting a visionary restructuring of the huge debt. He rejected the Free Trade Area of the Americas and reminded his neighbours of the strengths of Mercosur, South America’s home-grown trade agreement.

Kirchner underplayed his associations with former president Carlos Menem (whose decade in power was characterised by corruption) and was sworn in without a hint of scandal.

While denouncing the US for its anti-Cuba policies, he brought Argentina back from collapse. He paid off its debt to the IMF in 2005, three years ahead of schedule, and the economy is growing. Financial onlookers worry that his aggressive nationalism and micromanagement – he banned exports for a while, and nationalised the French-owned water company Aguas Argentinas – may put off foreign investment. Of more concern to democrats is his penchant for legislating by decree, and there are allegations of cronyism, particularly since he appointed his sister Alicia to an influential government post.

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Yet Kirchner’s resistance to the US and his inventive searches for a new model upon which to develop Argentina as inherently Latin American echo the behaviour of Chávez, Lula, Evo Morales and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay. He is defiantly populist. He is, after all, a Peronist. When Chávez announced his Axis of Good, comprising himself, Morales and Fidel Castro, he left out his Argentinian ally. It remains to be seen whether Kirchner will join the brotherhood.

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