The Penguin

My obituary of Nestor Kirchner, former President of Argentina

The death of former President Néstor Kirchner was a watershed moment in Argentina’s recent history. In the twenty four hours that he lay in state in the presidential palace, hundreds of thousands filed past his body, attesting to his enormous political influence, both in power and ever since leaving it.

Kirchner’s political career began in his native province of Santa Cruz, serving both as mayor of the provincial capital and governor. In 2003 he ran for presidency and won with a mere 22% of the votes, owing much to the withdrawal of former president Carlos Menem from the run-off. Upon entering office, he became the country’s first Patagonian president, earning himself the nickname “The Penguin”. The country was reeling from the economic crisis of 2001, during which it had suffered the largest debt default in history; from figuring among the wealthiest states in South America, the country had witnessed two thirds of its nationals plunge below the poverty level. The crisis had also discredited the presidential institution, which became somewhat of a revolving door in the darkest days of December 2001 as five different presidents were instituated in the space of a fortnight.

Kirchner lasted his term and brought economic stability. Exploiting the boom in commodity prices, particularly that of soya, the economy grew at an extraordinary pace and poverty and unemployment fell. Kirchner paid back the country’s debts to the IMF, but unprecedented in Latin American history, refused to listen to its terms for debt restructuring. He developed close ties with the region’s leaders, particularly Hugo Chavez and Lula, largely shunning the reach of the United States. Perhaps his greatest legacy was his determination to legally punish the abuses of the last military junta. He repealed the amnesty laws protecting the military, retired members of the military implicated in the Dirty War and paved the way for hundreds of trials treating human rights violations.

Kirchner left office in 2007 amidst corruption scandals and signs that his economic success was creaking, to be succeeded by his wife Cristina Fernandez. His political influence was however undiminished, rumours abounding that it was he rather than her who was really pulling the presidential strings, anticipating a return to the presidency in 2011. He set out to unite the factionalised Peronist movement under his chairmanship of the Justicialist Party, but it lost its absolute majorities in the mid-term elections of 2009. Earlier this year, he was designated the first Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations, a new intergovernmental union modelled on the European Union.

Kirchner’s death has left a gaping hole in Argentinian politics. Not only was he its most influential figure, but also the political mentor of the current president. She must now follow a path without his guidance. Whether it is significantly different from her husband’s divisive modelo has yet to be seen, but with elections in a year’s time she may be forced into taking a more pragmatic approach.

At press time, leaders of the Union of South American Nations were gathered in Guyana, discussing the succession of their very first Secretary General – one of the region’s greatest leaders in the modern era.

As appeared in “The Elephant” at http://theelephantmagazine.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/the-penguin/#more-415

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