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An Obituary for Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner

Andrew Lyubarsky Nov 3, 2010

In the wake of the untimely death of former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner, the editorial pages of the top privately-owned newspapers in Argentina started immediately to call for a change in the course that he had set the nation upon.

While manifesting all due respect for the deceased, La Nación was already pondering the question of “How Cristina Kirchner can Change,” and warning ominously that “the political truce will not last very long, unless there is a hereto unthinkable signal sent from the Executive branch that is associated with a search for political dialogue in tune with a society which demands serenity.”

Argentine financial markets, which don´t have the nominal period of formal respect required of opposition politics, celebrated his passing openly with rapid increases in Argentine stocks and a sudden decline in the country risk. Another of the populist bogeymen that populate the pages of the Economist and the international business press had bit the dust, and, as the story goes, the country could now take steps to recover institutional stability and economic normalcy, free of politically-motivated “distortions.”

With the massive demonstrations of support for the President  and his bereaved wife, it is safe to say that these commentators should not hold their breath.

Argentines will not quickly forget Néstor Kirchner, a president who, after successfully shepherding the country out of the most devastating economic crisis in its history, guided the country to the necessary but long-postponed confrontation with the ghosts of its past. He dramatically defied international policy orthodoxy and presided over one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America.

And how this was accomplished was truly remarkable.

Kirchner came in to the presidency in 2003 as an obscure provincial governor who had garnered 22 percent of the vote. He finished second in the first round to former president and neoliberal icon Carlos Menem, who decided not to continue to the second round because polls showed that he would lose. He had scarce control over his own political party, much less the national political scene, and was coming in two years after the worst economic crisis in Argentine history, which was marked by a sovereign debt default, freezing of private bank accounts, factory occupations, pervasive street protests and pickets by the unemployed, some of which were repressed with deadly force, and a rotating cast of different presidents. The dream of Argentina as a wealthy country, which pervades the nation´s history and was kept alive through infusions of foreign cash for a couple speculation-filled years in the mid-1990s, appeared to yield violently to the realization that it was “just” another Latin American country, dependent entirely on economic forces beyond its control.

But, defying the expectations held by most people, the outsider held firmly established beliefs of his own. He presided over consistent economic growth that has been well above the Latin American average, and showed a keen desire to reassert the state, instead of merely the market, as an actor in the distribution of resources.

With the growing reserves acquired from a consistent trade surplus, Argentina paid off the entirety of the country´s debt to the IMF, assuring that the country would have complete policy autonomy and not have to deal with any externally-imposed conditionalities.

Together with Lula da Silva of Brazil, Kirchner helped kill the Bush-era Free Trade Area of the Americas plan, which would have turned all of Latin America into a huge NAFTA zone for foreign products.

A consistently high inflation rate was the by-product of this economic growth, but for the first time in a long time, Argentina seemed to have both stable economic growth and the continuation of democratic institutional stability. While international actors continue to warn that Argentina is teetering on the precipice of disaster until it cuts its public spending, the economy hums along and debt repayment continues at a reasonable pace.

There were also other surprises. Kirchner got the human rights organizations on his side by becoming a forceful advocate for the “desaparecidos,” and for reopening trials into the crimes of the brutal military dictatorship, many of whose leaders had been pardoned under the Menem government. He ordered that the portraits of the coup leaders be removed from the military academies.

This was a huge symbolic move that prior governments had strayed away from with the aim of promoting “reconciliation” and social peace, which for them meant the peace of the graveyards. It sent a message that you cannot beat, torture and kill thousands of people with utter impunity, and that a democratic government has the legitimacy to try those that abused state power in less happy times. This alone merits the government a place in history, for Argentina has the meritorious distinction of being the only Latin American country which has really put a significant number of its military rulers on trial in a democratic context. In the Bicentennial celebrations this past year, which were to celebrate the glorious accomplishments of the nation in its first 200 years of existence, the presence of stark acts and performances honoring the “disappeared” and the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” was striking.

The Kirchner couple re-nationalized many privatized companies (such as the postal service and the state airline), re-nationalized the privatized pension system to garner more money for the state, instituted universal welfare payments (Asignación Universal por Hijo) for children under 18 that the UN has noted virtually eliminated child hunger and put a dent in child poverty, and passed a media law that would limit the control that any single media entity could have in a given market (an attack on private media monopolies). Oh, and in the meantime, they passed legislation to make Argentina the first Latin American country to permit gay marriage.

Not a meager record by any means. Not surprisingly, a president this effective, and whose policies challenge, albeit moderately, a host of established interests is likely to garner a lot of opposition. Although the Argentine right lacks the apocalyptic tenor (and looniness) of its US counterpart, it has had roughly the same electoral strategy – bash the Kirchners for all the problems of the nation and vote against the government´s legislation, no matter if the content of the legislation is identical to what they themselves were proposing years ago.

And, in order to pass all this legislation, Néstor Kirchner did not sit down and say – “Well, I only have 22% of the vote, while I need to be the president for all Argentines. I need to invite everyone to the table so that we can have a reasoned discussion about the best way forward for the country, instead of rashly imposing my own, scarcely legitimized, political position.”

This is a fitting strategy for a university seminar on constitutional democracy, but not for a country recovering from disaster. He conceived of his role as a militant for a cause, not as a “great uniter,” and the advancement of this cause sometimes took precedent over established institutional arrangements. He made many decisions by presidential decree instead of seeking congressional approval and was very fierce at establishing his base of power and excluding or burying potential rivals. With Kirchner, it was “you are with us or you are against us”, the classic populist formulation.

This model cannot and should not be justified in all cases, even in the pursuit of what we ambiguously call “social justice”. Indeed, Argentina´s great populist leader Juan Perón was known for his wanton disregard for democratic institutionality, even if he won every election he ever faced, and this was a conception shared by the right-wing military that removed him from power as well. However, within limits (not a single media outlet has been closed, not a single political opponent has been imprisoned) it works rather well for effecting social change.

Public opinion after the 2001 crisis was extremely nebulous in terms of policy prescriptions – the people wanted change, and they were glad to elect an unknown outsider to bring it (not unlike the situation in post-crisis US circa 2008). Instead of yielding to existing public opinion, the Kirchners pushed forward with an ambitious program that would be judged upon its merits after its implementation, and secured the allegiance of a good number of previously-apathetic youth with its human rights policies.

As with any government, there was also a dark side. Although they paled in comparison to the institutionalized corruption of the Menem period, there were incidents during the two governments of the “government economics minister found with briefcase of US dollars in her bathroom” variety, and there was a scandal of a businessmen coming back from Venezuela with a briefcase of bills destined towards Cristina Kirchner´s election campaign .

It is also said that the Kirchners´ personal net worth skyrocketed during their presidency, most of it coming from shady land deals with the local government in their home province in Patagonia. The evidence is also strong that they instructed Indec, the national statistics agency to issue unrealistically low inflation estimates, and removed functionaries that were not content to follow their orders. People close to the government have done well, and certain businesses openly hostile in the government have been treated poorly. Finally, the first couple lost a lot of popularity in an ultimately failed attempt to increase taxes on large-scale export agriculture, which resulted in nationwide producers´ strikes.

But compared to the changes they have instituted, these are trivialities. The Kirchners have always been accused of being confrontational, aggressive, and divisive, and this is true. When one has political forces that are dedicated to protecting the interests of the same elite that benefited from a crisis that devasted your country, one has to attack them, methodically and ruthlessly.

For politics is not merely a game of differing opinions, but of opposing interests. If you want to push forward a project that will benefit some sectors of the population, you will step on the toes of other sectors with a lot of power, both in terms of money and media exposure. Good for them for being aggressive, for attacking, for not seeking an ideologically vapid compromise, and for being sufficiently firm in their ideological principles to put into practice what they wanted to see happen. Good for them for being militants, for striving to generate the popular base for their politics that did not exist before, and for reinjecting the war of ideas into a politics that before had served primarily for the enrichment of its participants.

And, now, we compare Mr. Kirchner to the great Nobel-Prize-winning “there is no red state America, there is no blue state America, there is only the United States of America” reformer-president we have up in the United States, whose party is set to lose vast quantities of Congressional seats to a right-wing opposition whose representatives´ characteristics range from an irrational free-market fundamentalism nonexistent anywhere else on the planet to clinical lunacy. Because Barack believed that with His Charisma, His Popularity and His Innovative, Practical Policy Solutions, he would be able to get the right-wing opposition to the table, negotiating a decent economic policy, health-care overhaul, financial system reform and, why not, get climate and immigration policy in line.

One hoped that this was some sort of clever ruse that he was just mouthing in order to get elected as a “uniter” that he would discard upon becoming president, due to the evident reality that the nations´ problems required stronger medicine, but it turned out that he was honest. He actually set upon the task of gutting his policy proposals in a vain attempt to convince “moderates” to vote for them, and ended up allowing the opposition to set the boundaries on fiscal policy, preventing a stimulus package of greater size, passing health-care reform without the public option and a tepid financial reform.

He still hasn´t closed Guantánamo, despite signing the order to do so on his first day as President, and it seems clear that the nation´s undocumented immigrants still face a long road ahead to recognition.

But unlike Kirchner, Obama is not a militant. He gives the opposition (read: business interests) a chance to get on board with his political project. When they reward him with months of concerted misinformation, he invites them to a summit to seek out mutual understanding. He does not divide. He does not confront. He does not engage in reckless populist promises or excesses in speech or demeanor.  And yet the country slouches, still divided, towards the future, with a dysfunctional political system, leaving none of its largest questions resolved.

It is not so much as that Obama has missed a crucial lesson of politics, or that he would have necessarily been more popular had he passed a public option through budget reconciliation, opposition be-damned. It is that politics in the United States occurs on a different plane, where so many segments of the political classes are owned part-and-parcel by the hodgepodge of moneyed interests that facilitate their re-election campaign that any substantive changes are nearly impossible, even when they are desperately needed. Perhaps, taking advantage of the unique historical opportunity afforded by a crisis unseen in eighty years, this government could have pushed them, if it ever had the desire to do so. Perhaps. We will never know, because it never tried.

Maybe we Americans can learn something from the “irresponsible populists” of the global South.

So this is a kudos to you, Néstor. Because of you, Argentina is starting out on the right path, has started to deal with its bloody past, has started to march together with its neighbors in the construction of a Latin America that is not just the back door of the First World, but a developing regional power.

The thousands of Argentines that travelled from all over the country to pay their respects by your coffin have shown you their gratitude for this, but it is also yet another “teachable moment” for the rest of the world from the emerging powers of Latin America, the only region that has not shifted to the right after the global economic process – that there is another way to economic growth except fiscal austerity, balancing the budget on the backs of the workers and shredding through decades of gains earned through social struggle.

We no longer need romantic myths of bearded revolutionaries that will overthrow the bourgeois order and install a utopia that will improve the lives of all. Sometimes, a bug-eyed governor from Patagonia, not photogenic enough to be memorialized in a T-shirt logo, can provide his people with hope. When he became president he was not known for being particularly progressive in his own province, had accompanied the neoliberal reforms in the 1990s without much fuss, and was elected primarily for being a blank slate. He just knew how to take advantage of the political opportunities that were presented him to reform a country in desperate need of it. He pushed certain truths that should be asserted in our twenty-first century.

The actions of countries are guided not only by incontestable laws written by distant technocrats, but also by human volition. You cannot bury historical facts written in blood. There is more than one way to development. You can defy the IMF and live.

Someone else could have done it, for the opportunity was there. But someone else didn’t do it. It was Néstor. And for this, I thank you.

Andrew Lyubarsky has been living in the northwestern province of Salta in Argentina for the past year, completing a Fulbright teaching fellowship.  He has been interested in the emergence of Latin American regional powers, indigenous movements, and integration. 

This article was originally published in The Santiago Times.

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