Human Rights and
International Democratic Solidarity

Press Mentions

June 28, 2003

A strong hand in Argentina

Leader Asserts Authority With Aggressive Reforms

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service.
Saturday, June 28, 2003; Page A22

BUENOS AIRES, June 27 -- The watch repairman was replacing the old Seiko's worn-out battery when he lifted his head, smiled and put a question to his customer, Mabel Kia.

"What do you think about our new president?" asked the repairman, Nicolas Bello, 56. "He is a real tiger, no? He's cleaning up all the mess in government, really getting things done."

Kia, 53, unwrapped the scarf around her neck. "I am surprised. I did not expect him to be such a tiger. Our president roars."

A month into his term, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner is asserting his authority with widespread, aggressive reforms that have left many people feeling both reassured and a bit overwhelmed.

A little-known governor from the sparsely populated Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Kirchner was handpicked by the caretaker president, Eduardo Duhalde, to run against his rival, former president Carlos Menem. Kirchner won the office with only 22 percent of the vote after Menem withdrew from a runoff rather than endure a humiliating defeat.

The lanky new president, who is fond of wearing moccasins with his suits, has quickly turned the tables on talk that his government would be weakened by the lack of a mandate, or that he would be Duhalde's puppet.

Only days after his inauguration, Kirchner announced a revamping of Argentina's armed forces, sacking the senior commanders and replacing them with officers from his home province. With Argentines concerned about soaring crime rates, he fired half of the management staff of the federal police department and hinted that his government might intervene in an unsolved murder case in which local authorities appeared to be dragging their feet.

He also took aim at the Supreme Court, and asked Congress to impeach some justices on corruption charges. And in a sign of Kirchner's strength and influence, Julio Nazareno, the chief justice, resigned today rather than face congressional scrutiny.

"He has presented his resignation," Gregorio Badeni, Nazareno's lawyer, told reporters.

When he asked for an investigation of the court on June 4, Kirchner referred to Nazareno's behavior as "inappropriate" for someone of his position. The Supreme Court has been widely viewed as a partisan body of Menem loyalists.

Kirchner introduced a crackdown on tax evasion in a country where the practice is widespread. He also tapped into public resentment of Argentina's privatized utilities by threatening to cancel the contracts of firms that do not improve their services.

"I think he has been able, at least in this first month, to achieve his goal of changing the perception about himself," said Carlos Gervasoni, a pollster and political scientist at Torcuato Di Tella University . "He has been quite successful because . . . nobody speaks of Duhalde. The political talk these days is all about Kirchner. He is a real president and he knows how to deal with these issues. He has his own ideas. He is not a puppet of Duhalde."

Kirchner is benefiting from an economy that is gradually recovering from its worst crisis in history. Government statistics released last week indicated that the gross domestic product expanded by 5.4 percent from January to April, compared with the same period a year ago. That was the most sustained growth since the country fell into recession in mid-1998.

Polls indicate that 80 percent of Argentines approve of Kirchner's performance, compared with a popularity rating of about 38 percent in the weeks leading up to his inauguration on May 25.

So far, Kirchner has not strayed from the populist stance he adopted during his campaign, saying he will focus on public well-being. This week, his finance minister announced new restrictions on speculative investment flowing into the country, in an attempt to curb the financial disruptions caused by "hot money." Lenders such as the International Monetary Fund typically support such controls.

The IMF's managing director, Horst Kohler, was in Buenos Aires this week and said he favored negotiations on rescheduling overdue portions of Argentina's foreign debt.

"I was particularly impressed by President Kirchner," Kohler said at a news conference. "He obviously has a vision. I do think that this vision should be implemented. And this will lead this country to strong growth and social cohesion."

Kohler's visit was his first since the government devalued the peso in January 2002 , freezing bank deposits, which triggered violent demonstrations. A recession followed and the country defaulted on its estimated $141 billion foreign debt.

It was perhaps Kirchner's military reorganization that most showed his strong hand. The military, which was accused of extensive human rights violations and blamed for killing as many as 20,000 people during a "dirty war" in the 1970s, has played virtually no role in politics since relinquishing power 20 years ago and poses little if any threat to a democratically elected government.

"This has been the largest renovation of military leadership in the history of Argentina," said Gervasoni. "Nobody understands exactly why that was necessary, so one of the main explanations is that it was an easy way to show power. It was an easy way to signal that he was in charge."