Argentine society registered surprise in response to President Néstor Kirchner’s string of progressive measures over the first hundred days of his administration. Then, in late August, Kirchner did the unthinkable and announced to International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt negotiators that he was unwilling to sign an agreement containing conditions that had been stipulated in the agreement signed by his predecessor.
He unfortunately signed an agreement that, while better than past accords, contains stringent fiscal adjustment measures aimed exclusively at debt repayment.
Kirchner’s main break with the past has been in the area of human rights and institutional change. Few had expected these bold moves. Kirchner took office with the slimmest voter mandate in Argentine history, following cancellation
of second-round voting due to former President Carlos Menem’s decision to withdraw. Furthermore, Kirchner’s relative silence during the campaign, coupled with a cozy political alliance with his predecessor Eduardo Duhalde, led most Argentines to expect business-as-usual from the new president. When he retained Duhalde’s Finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, predictions that social and economic policy would stay the course and buckle to IMF pressures seemed confirmed.
The first sign of a break with the politics of recent decades came in a
strong speech Kirchner gave shortly after Menem’s withdrawal. Shocking the
business and financial establishment, he stated that Menem’s withdrawal served
business groups that had enjoyed "inadmissible privileges" during
Menem’s presidential years, and furthered "interests that co-opted the
state corrupted political leaders and ruined the lives of [Argentina’s]
Kirchner’s May 25 inauguration speech went even further in its critique
of the neoliberal policies of his predecessors, explicitly citing the social
and economic costs of IMF-sponsored structural adjustment and proposing renegotiation
of the privatized utility contracts. He also spoke of the need for an efficient
and active state to "introduce equality where the market excludes and
abandons." Matching deeds to words, on his second day in office Kirchner
flew to the province of Entre Ríos to resolve a teacher’s strike and
re-opened public school classrooms there for the first time in 2003.
Taking on the Supreme Court
During his first week in office, Kirchner also set in motion measures to
strengthen the justice system and end government-sponsored impunity for the
perpetrators of crimes during Argentina’s dark years of military dictatorship.
First, Kirchner replaced the top leadership of the armed forces and federal
police, many of whom had horrific track records as human rights abusers. Then,
in a move that enhanced rule of law, on June 5, he declared on national television
that he would not succumb to blackmail by Julio Nazareno, the chief justice
of the Supreme Court and an icon of Menem-era corruption. He also urged Congress
to accelerate impeachment proceedings against all Supreme Court justices initiated
by Congress weeks earlier. According to media reports, Nazareno had threatened
Kirchner that if he didn’t halt the proceedings, the court would issue rulings
to cause political and financial chaos, such as reverting bank deposits to
dollars after a 2002 peso conversion. Just three weeks after Kirchner’s announcement,
and following 13 years on the court, Nazareno resigned to avoid an inevitable
Kirchner then called upon civil society organizations to help draft a decree
to democratize the previously closed-door selection of Supreme Court justices.
Using a white paper written by six Argentine nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) as his guide, he established a process that includes widely published
announcements of nominees’ qualifications and mechanisms for organizations
and individuals to opine about candidates. Kirchner has since announced similar
mechanisms for greater transparency and citizen participation in the selection
of all federal judges.
For several decades, Supreme Court justices have had dubious or outright
inadequate legal qualifications, and they have exercised political loyalties
that made them unsuitable for their posts. In a dramatic break with this tradition,
Kirchner nominated criminal law expert and former federal appeals court judge
Raúl Zaffaroni to replace Nazareno. Zaffaroni is considered eminently
qualified and politically independent, and in fact criticized Kirchner during
his tenure as governor of Santa Cruz.
Justice for the Crimes of the
Another item high on the Kirchner agenda after taking office was to redress
impunity for human rights violations committed under Argentina’s grisly dictatorship
during the period of 1976 to 1983. The president met with human rights organizations
including the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and declared his support
for their search for justice in the torture and disappearance of 30,000 people
during the dictatorship.
For years, Argentine presidents refused to comply with extradition requests
for military officers implicated in these crimes. On July 25, Argentina received
an extradition request from Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón for 46 former
and present military officers for the disappearance of Spanish citizens. Garzón
gained renown in international human rights circles for a similar case against
former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet that led to his prolonged arrest
in England in 1998 and 1999.
On July 26, Kirchner signed a decree to reverse an executive order barring
the extradition of military officers to foreign countries whose citizens had
been killed under the dictatorship. The decree allows Argentine courts to
decide extraditions on a case-by-case basis. Thirty-nine military officers
and one civilian were arrested and held until Spanish Prime Minister José
María Aznar refused to act on Garzón’s request. The detainees
included retired Gen. Antonio Bussi, who is accused of the disappearance of
800 persons in the mid 1970s. Bussi recently won the mayoral election of the
city of San Miguel de Tucumán by 17 votes, defeating two candidates
whose parents were disappeared during the dictatorship.
Subsequently, Kirchner urged the Congress to nullify the so-called "impunity
laws." These include the 1986 Punto Final or "Full Stop" law,
which set a 60-day deadline to file complaints for crimes committed during
what was termed the "war against subversion," and the 1987 Due Obedience
law that allowed hundreds of lower-ranking personnel to avoid prosecution
under the claim that they were following orders. In a somewhat symbolic measure,
Congress complied with Kirchner’s wish on Aug. 20. Victims’ families and human
rights advocates celebrated in the streets.
"We have always maintained that the nullification of these laws has
to come from the justice system," said Victor Abramovich, director of
the leading human rights organization, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales,
shortly after the measure passed. But he added that the congressional nullification
sends a strong political message to the judiciary, since now both the legislative
and the executive branches have weighed in against the laws. The Supreme Court
is scheduled to rule on their constitutionality in November. According to
the conservative daily La Nación, more than 2,400 officers could go
to trial if the laws are nullified.
Meanwhile, the president has continued his crusade to finally bring to
justice the dictatorship’s human rights violators. On Aug. 12, he signed into
law Argentina’s adherence to the International Convention on the Non-Applicability
of the Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, removing
the defense of statutory limitations for war crimes and putting further pressure
on the Supreme Court. In another dramatic move toward truth and justice, at
Kirchner’s behest, the national intelligence agency agreed to end years of
hermetic secrecy by opening its files on the July 1994 car-bomb that destroyed
the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), Buenos Aires’ Jewish
Community Center, leaving 86 dead and 300 injured.
Standing Up To The IMF?
On Sept. 20, the IMF formally announced the signing of an agreement with
Argentina. While the agreement has been heralded as an Argentine victory over
the IMF, it contains conditions that are, once again, aimed at Argentina’s
payment of its international debt at the expense of desperately needed economic
recovery. The good news is that Kirchner refused to accept controversial measures
stipulated in the January 2003 IMF accord: He refused to veto a law postponing
mortgage foreclosures and he did not back steps to privatize public banks.
In fact, Kirchner has made strengthening the public banks a policy objective.
Furthermore, he resisted consistent pressure from the IMF to increase public
service rates charged by utilities that were privatized in the 1990s under
Menem’s administration, largely held today by European companies. Instead
Kirchner declared that his administration will reject any rate increases until
it has reviewed one-by-one its contracts with the foreign companies that have
made a killing over the past decade while running the nation’s public services.
The bad news is that the agreement demands that Argentina produce a primary
budget surplus of 3% of GDP during 2004, which represents a 20% increase over
2003. According to the agreement, rather than help reactivate the economy,
this surplus will be destined exclusively to debt service to the IMF, other
multilateral creditors, and private creditors. Other macroeconomic targets
stipulated in the agreement such as expansion of the application of the 21%
value-added (sales) tax also have a strong recessionary bias. The agreement
also limits Argentina to a very restrictive monetary policy and requires the
government to request that Congress give it the power to unilaterally increase
public utility rates, leading many to believe that rate hikes are imminent.
There had been some indication that the new president would take a stronger
stance with the IMF. In his inaugural speech, Kirchner announced that Argentina
would pay its foreign debt only when economic recovery had been established.
At Kirchner’s invitation, IMF Director Horst Kohler visited Argentina to negotiate
directly with his administration. Kirchner told Kohler that the IMF is largely
responsible for Argentina’s current economic debacle. The IMF has yet to acknowledge
any policy mistakes in Argentina, but this is the first time in decades that
an Argentine president has called the IMF on its obvious and repeated failures.
Analysts had hoped that Kirchner would finally move toward designing and
implementing a badly needed comprehensive plan for economic reactivation and
development. Unfortunately, the new agreement makes that impossible, since
the funds that will be generated are destined to debt payment, not reactivation.
Furthermore, although some important economic indices have been improving
since the crash, others continue to be worrisome. Distribution of income is
worse than in 2001: The richest 10% of Argentines receive 37% of the wealth,
while the poorest 10% receive a mere 1.5%. Poverty stands at 54% of the population,
indigence at almost a third, and unemployment at 20%. Meanwhile measures such
as the June 10 announcement of increases in minimum salaries and pensions
and the Aug. 21 pledge to build 700 schools that will create 25,000 jobs are
both steps in the right direction, but they do not constitute a coherent economic
Supporters and Detractors: Kirchner’s
Prospects for the Future
Despite their concern about the country’s pressing economic issues, many
Argentines are decidedly more optimistic about politics since Kirchner took
office. Kirchner’s approval ratings have held at roughly 70%. Argentines talk
about Kirchner having restored their dignity, and it seems they are expanding
their perception of possible changes in politics and public administration.
But Kirchner has his detractors as well, within the financial establishment
and the political right. His Vice President Daniel Scioli, a conservative
Peronist with ties to Menem, voiced their concerns when he publicly contradicted
the president on numerous key issues. Playing on the campaign slogan of "a
real country," he quipped, "In a real country, laws are not annulled,"
to which presidential spokesman Miguel Nuñez responded, "In a
real country, there is not impunity. There is justice and there is truth."
Scioli also contradicted the president on utility rate increases and the prospects
for a U.S.-sponsored hemispheric free trade agreement.
The political right and the conservative media are going all out against
Kirchner for many of his positions. In response to Kirchner’s speech at the
time Menem withdrew from the presidential race, La Nación announced
that the president wouldn’t last more than a year, prompting strong reactions
from public figures and the media–from the center to the left. For the time
being they have held off, but they could very well declare war on Kirchner
and his presidency at any time.
On the other hand, some of the most important leaders of the political
opposition support him, including congresswoman and former presidential candidate
Elisa Carrió of the Argentinos para Una República de Iguales
(ARI) party. On Aug. 24, she told Pagina/12, "We are going to be at the
side of this presidential authority. This president has to make it past September.
He has the agreement with the IMF pending . We’re not going to hurry
him. We’re asking for serenity, and not for us, for him and for the country."
Still, Carrió has expressed concern that he has taken on "too
many mafias" at one time. Indeed, some Argentines are frightened by the
speed of the changes, so their optimism is tempered by concern about potential
repercussions from the business establishment and the political right.
Important elements of the popular movement have given him public support,
or at least view his administration favorably. Human rights groups have expressed
some surprise and general approval of his measures on that front.
Brukman is one of the worker-seized and -run factories known here as fábricas
recuperadas. According to Página/12, Brukman’s workers canceled plans
to camp out in protest in front of the executive offices after the Kirchner
administration agreed to consider their request for support in their efforts
to continue working at the factory.
The piqueteros are the organized unemployed who use roadblocks to protest
for food, jobs, and workfare, and most have had consistently confrontational
relationships with past governments. Several such groups support Kirchner,
and in an unusual twist, new groups of pro-Kirchner, Peronist piqueteros have
sprung up in the province of Buenos Aires. Kirchner has received piquetero
families in the presidential offices, and La Nación published a photograph
of him kissing their children when he signed an agreement providing 1,800,000
pesos for their microenterprise projects.
At times, it seems that the popular movement has become somewhat disengaged
in the traditional Argentine style of letting the president act at will. This
is probably due to the fact that Kirchner has taken such an active stand on
many progressive issues, but it also raises questions about mechanisms for
popular participation and for presidential accountability.
Internationally, Kirchner has established relationships with Brazilian
President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
These links have led some progressives to hope for a development alternative
to U.S. President George W. Bush’s proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas
(FTAA), which would integrate the economies of the Americas in a single, U.S.-driven
free-trade agreement. Kirchner’s administration has made a strong bid for
strengthening Mercosur (the Southern Cone trading block consisting of Paraguay,
Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina) as a negotiating bloc for any broader trade
Indeed, many in Argentina believe that strengthening Mercosur is a better
alternative than the FTAA. Both Lula and Kirchner have expressed their hopes
that Mercosur would comprise a political alliance as well, modeled after the
European Union. Ideally, Mercosur would be expanded to include other South
American countries, and thus improve the region’s bargaining power vis-à-vis
the United States.
Kirchner’s mid-July tour in Europe garnered support from several heads
of state for his administration and his negotiations with the IMF. He also
had a surprisingly friendly visit in Washington with Bush, who promised his
support for an agreement with the IMF. Bush reportedly told Kirchner to negotiate
hard with the IMF, down to "every last penny." Some progressives
here objected to such a friendly encounter with no challenges to Bush’s wars
in Afghanistan and Iraq, or his devastating economic policies and other international
Many Argentines opine that Kirchner needs to act with caution, since his
detractors could easily attack his government by using the media or tactics
such as manipulating the Argentine foreign currency market to destabilize
the exchange rate and introduce financial instability. Still, most Argentines
wish him success. He has brought un nuevo aire to politics–a breath of fresh
air. In 100 days, the president has made significant changes in 30 years of
Will Kirchner sustain this trend, and will he be able to make a similar
dent in resolving Argentina’s enormous economic and social problems? His next
100 days may tell.