Though he may have polarised opinion with his confrontational style and heterodox policies, the reaction to Néstor Kirchner’s sudden death last week made it clear how important he was in Argentine politics. It makes sense: aside from being a former president, chief policy advisor to the current president (his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) and active deputy in Congress, he was the leader and symbol of the country’s socialist movement over the last decade.
Tributes in the media in the aftermath of his death describe a man who was passionate to the point of obsession about his work, something that was both a virtue and, ultimately, a costly weakness.
However, while he was still alive, attitudes towards Kirchner the politician and the so-called kirchnerismo movement he led differed wildly. Some considered him a revolutionary who did more for Argentines than any leader since Juan Domingo Perón, a national emblem. Others dismissed him as populist or authoritarian, and accused him of amassing a personal fortune whilst preaching the merits of wealth redistribution.
In death, however, an examination of his legacy through his achievements, and not his imposing personality, seems more appropriate.
The Rise of Kirchnerismo
When Kirchner became president in 2003, Argentina was broken—the economy was in ruins after a devastating default, and the state had neither credibility among, nor authority over, a resentful public. At that point, the country found the strong leader it needed in the unknown and awkward-looking governor from Santa Cruz, in far-flung Patagonia. With an inaugural-day promise that “change was the name of the future” Kirchner set about the task of redrawing the political, economic and social landscape of Argentina with a ferocity that would never subside, even as his health deteriorated.
In practice, this meant a clean break from the institutions and policies that had led the country from one crisis to another since the military dictatorship that began in 1976. The establishment—and the powerful actors that controlled it from behind the scenes—had to be dismantled. The Supreme Court was one of the first institutions to be purged, with a new system for electing judges in a more independent and transparent fashion established by presidential decree in mid-2003.
The military, so long the country’s dominant force, was also a target. On 24th March 2004, the anniversary of the ’76 military coup that marked the start of the Dirty War, Kirchner personally ordered the removal of the portraits of two dictators, Videla and Bignone, from the walls of the Military School. This was a symbolic gesture, but it showed he was willing to tread where other presidents hadn’t dared, and before his term was up, the pardons extended to the military junta by former president Carlos Menem had been nullified and human rights trials had begun.
There were also big changes in economic and social policy, as Kirchner turned his back on the neo-liberal ideology that governed the country during the Menem era of the 90s. According to the incoming president, the success of that model was measured by the profits of a few concentrated sectors and the size of speculative investment, without any regard for the poverty and social exclusion that this caused.
Under kirchnerismo—an offshoot of the Peronist doctrine—the balance of power would shift back from the business to the workers, and would serve national, rather than foreign, interests. Trade unions were given new powers to negotiate conditions and salaries, minimum wages were reinstated and pension payments increased. The state began to take a more directly active role in the economy: several industries were re-nationalised, government subsidies kept prices for transport and utilities frozen, and spending on public works ballooned.
Kirchner’s other key objective was to break the country’s dependence on external debt, thus freeing it from the suffocating demands of foreign creditors. In perhaps his most landmark achievement, he took a uncompromising, hard line approach to negotiations, and was able to restructure around three quarters of its outstanding debt on terms considered impossible even within his own government. In 2006, he ordered the lump-sum payment of all obligations to the IMF and severed ties with the Washington-based institution. Around the same time, Kirchner rejected a trade agreement the Bush administration, working instead with countries such as Venezuela and Brazil to enhance regional integration.
A Work in Progress
From the beginning, evaluating the success of kirchnerismo was a complex affair, with few concrete conclusions. True, the economic rebound after 2003 was swift and meaningful, and, despite constant warnings from orthodox economists, has been more or less sustained through to today. Growth has averaged almost 9% a year, while the number of unemployed and those living in poverty has fallen by more than half.
The headline data do not tell the whole story, though. Critics point to the fact that it was Kirchner’s predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde, who actually abandoned the currency peg, survived the devastating short-term consequences and set the economy on the path to recovery with a competitive exchange rate. Then there were the extremely favourable tailwinds in the international economy: the relentless expansion of China brought unprecedented demand for Argentina’s agricultural products, which benefited further from soaring global food prices. The money coming from export sales soared, helping to keep the public coffers full and support the government’s ever increasing spending commitments.
Progress in other areas was also inconclusive: the military junta went back on trial, but proceedings were bogged down in a judiciary that continued to suffer from doubts over its efficiency and independence. Workers salaries improved significantly, but the informal labour market remained uncomfortably large.
Kirchnerismo Under Cristina
In the end, however, the debate about the effectiveness of Kirchner’s policies was not as relevant as the overwhelming public approval of the model. This enabled the handover of power to lifelong partner and political ally Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007 and ensured that kirchnerismo could be developed further, with Néstor now exerting his considerable political influence from behind the scenes.
Initiatives such as the nationalisation of the National Administration for Social Security (Anses), and the Asignación Universal por Hijo underscored the commitment to progressive social policies that targeted low-income groups. Meanwhile, the new media law and approval of same-sex marriages are signs that kirchnerismo is still challenging the country’s traditional powers, this time big media and the Catholic Church respectively.
The proposal to increase export taxes for soy in 2008 was another policy designed to strengthen the model, by further redistributing the wealth of Argentina’s most lucrative industry. The major campo protest that followed and subsequent rejection of the new tariffs in the Senate was the first time a major Kirchner-led policy was halted. A rejuvenated opposition, a barrage of negative media exposure and signs of a fractured Peronismo Justicialista party following a poor showing in the 2009 legislative elections were indications that more obstacles lay ahead.
But the plan was to keep going: Néstor, who never backed out of a fight, and a small group of his most loyal supporters stepped up the confrontational rhetoric and refused to bow down to criticism. He was seemingly gearing up for the 2011 electoral campaign as he repeatedly called for the need to “deepen the model”. Then his heart failed him.
Now the strength of his legacy as a man will probably be judged by the fortitude and endurance of the model he created. But aside from his individual achievements and failures, Néstor Kirchner’s legacy must also be analysed today according to the cultural and psychological impact of his time in power. Last week’s outpouring of grief demonstrated his significance to the Argentine public, even among his most fierce critics. But perhaps even more importantly, by forcing a radical paradigm shift against the odds using only politics, Kirchner has helped restore public faith in government policy as a tool for change.