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Vigilant Over Argentina's Future, and Past

President Kirchner is confronting crimes of the 'dirty war' and has attained leadership status in the region. He meets with Bush today.

July 23, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

TUCUMAN, Argentina — That no one ever faced justice for torturing and killing human rights attorney Angel Gerardo Pisarello is an anguish relived by his widow and daughter each morning. That is when a chauffeur-driven car delivers the accused mastermind of the outrage to an office across the street from their apartment.

Out steps retired Gen. Antonio Bussi, pardoned in a general amnesty for those accused of crimes during Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship. The 77-year-old military man, who ruled Tucuman province under the junta, is now the elected mayor.

"It's traumatizing to live in a society where every day you can come across a killer walking the streets freely," said Aurora Prados de Pisarello, 50, the slain attorney's daughter. "There can be no democracy in Argentina until there is justice."

For the first time since 1976, when Pisarello was kidnapped by masked soldiers and his abused body dumped in a park, the family of a victim of what is known as the "dirty war" can hope this country will cast aside taboos and confront the crime.

President Nestor Kirchner has put Argentines on notice that the wrongs of the past will be dealt with. To the cheers of his people, he has also targeted corruption, government ineptitude and a legacy of subservience to the United States and international lending institutions.

Kirchner's emergence from political nowhere this year to become de facto leader of a left-leaning alliance of Latin American powers has also caught the attention of the White House. After nearly two years of riveted U.S. focus on terrorism and the Middle East, the Bush administration appears to have noticed its neighbors' drift out of Washington's orbit, as Kirchner has been summoned to talks with President Bush today.

The meeting is expected to emphasize financial issues, primarily Argentina's quest for a more accommodating repayment plan for its $150-billion foreign debt.

But the White House invitation also signals recognition of Kirchner's dramatic rise to regional prominence and the respect he has won among Argentines whose disgust for government had reached historic levels before his surprise election.

Despite low expectations of a man who won only 21% of the first-round vote and emerged in May as the winner by default, Kirchner has rattled the cages of Argentina's demons. Not only are the dictatorship suspects squirming in their mahogany-paneled clubs, but the civilian leaders who pardoned them and then oversaw the plundering of Latin America's most prosperous country are also under intensified scrutiny.

An unassuming lawyer and former governor of a province in Patagonia -- the back of beyond, in the view of most residents of Buenos Aires -- Kirchner has earned the nickname "Hurricane K" for the speed and fury of his changes. He cleaned the courts, the police and the armed forces of figures who were tainted by association with or support for the junta that presided over the reign of terror in which an estimated 30,000 people are believed to have been slain. He's threatened a crackdown on tax cheats, seized the assets of the national health service for pensioners, which is reputed to be the government's most inept service, and taken tough positions on international lenders.

Putting the armed forces on notice that the fear-induced silence over the dirty war is being broken, Kirchner has hinted that he might meet human rights advocates' demands that the 1990 pardons granted by former President Carlos Menem be rescinded.

Kirchner won those activists over with his assertion that Argentina needed a judicial airing of its dictatorial past akin to the Nazi war crimes trials conducted at Nuremberg.

The new president's dynamic overtures, though dismissed as populism by critics, have kindled an emotional revolution among Argentines, who have suffered as much from political apathy in recent months as from the December 2001 economic collapse.

Despite the fact that half the nation's 37 million people live in poverty, and that the 20% unemployment rate is the highest since the Great Depression, Kirchner, the sixth president in less than two years, has approval ratings topping 80%.

He confronted the military brass head-on when he attended an annual banquet June 30 and told the assembled officers to engage in self-examination because there would be neither social peace nor democracy amid "complicity and silence."

That pointed remark sparked expectations that Kirchner would repeal a decree by former President Fernando de la Rua that shielded accused Argentines from extradition. It also encouraged a Spanish judge to reissue prosecution orders against 46 high-ranking officers accused of murder and genocide -- Bussi among them -- in cases in which the victims included Spaniards.

Kirchner's moral cleanup has found favor even in parts of the military community.

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