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Argentina's New President Cleans House

Nestor Kirchner sweeps out political, military and judicial organizations. He surprises observers with his strong leadership.

June 05, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — After less than two weeks on the job, Argentina's new president has already shaken this country's political, military and judicial establishments. First, he forced more than two dozen top generals into retirement. And this week, he purged the command of the federal police.

Nestor Kirchner is also, according to reports here, planning a housecleaning of the intelligence agency, which allegedly spied on him as a presidential candidate.

And on Wednesday evening, Kirchner called on Congress to impeach "one or several" members of the nation's Supreme Court. He said the court, whose majority is allied with a discredited former president, was "part of a past that is resisting the change which the future demands."

The former governor of a Patagonian province, Kirchner received only 22% of the vote in the preliminary round of voting in April, becoming president when his foe dropped out of the runoff. In the days since, Kirchner has surprised most observers of Argentine politics. They say he appears to be a species unseen in this troubled country for several years: a strong leader.

"What Kirchner has shown is that the political crisis of the last years is over," Horacio Verbitsky, a columnist for the newspaper Pagina 12, said in an interview. "All of these institutions were, in effect, running themselves, setting their own policies and agendas. Kirchner has stepped in to take control."

'Not Just Words'

For 18 months beginning in December 1999, Argentina was ruled by a series of interim presidents who seemed increasingly at the mercy of a bureaucracy and security apparatus rife with corruption. Former President Carlos Menem was widely seen as a puppet master pulling strings behind the scenes.

Before he took office on May 25, all indications seemed to point to a weak Kirchner presidency too. Although he had finished a close second in the April vote and subsequent polls showed Kirchner leading Menem by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, several observers said Menem tried to deny Kirchner the political capital of an overwhelming victory by withdrawing from the presidential race.

Instead, Kirchner is putting his stamp on the government, making good on a promise in his inauguration speech to lead a government of "deeds, and not just words." His moves so far amount to the most sweeping shake-up of Argentine government since the country returned to democracy in 1983.

Rumors that a purge of the military was in the works had begun to filter through the ranks even before Kirchner took office.

Less than 48 hours before Kirchner's inauguration, outgoing President Eduardo Duhalde greeted Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni and the three other heads of Argentina's armed forces. They begged for a last-minute intervention. "There's nothing I can do," Duhalde said, according to an account in the daily newspaper Clarin.

"If I ask Kirchner, things will only get worse for you," the president reportedly said. But just to show there were no hard feelings, Duhalde suggested they take a picture together, "to show the public the good feelings that unite us."

Less than a week later, the four officers were forced into retirement along with about two dozen other generals and admirals. Brinzoni had been close to Menem -- and had paid the former president a visit in his home province of La Rioja during the election campaign.

Still, in his farewell speech, Brinzoni suggested that the new president was guilty of the same political "intrigues" that had "brought politics to the barracks."

Kirchner responded angrily a few days later in his own speech on Army Day. "Analyzing and commenting on the conduct of elected officials is not a responsibility that a military man should assume," he said.

So deep did the purge go that Kirchner appointed as the new head of the armed forces a bottom-tier general, Roberto Bendini. Little more than a year ago, Bendini had been a colonel assigned to Argentina's wind-swept south, where he made friends with the governor destined to become president.

Next, Kirchner took aim at some last-minute moves by Duhalde that promised a windfall for private companies that run the nation's toll roads. Duhalde had been negotiating an extension of the toll-road contracts.

Kirchner announced that they would instead be opened to bidding and that the government would cut back on hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the companies. "Soliciting new bids will bring a more complete transparency to the process," said Julio de Vido, Kirchner's new federal planning minister.

Police Shakeup

On Monday, Kirchner's new justice minister announced a shakeup of the highest ranks of the federal police. Ten of the top 11 officials of the department will be forced into retirement.

The government will also appoint new chiefs for the 53 federal police stations in Buenos Aires in an effort to sweep the force of corruption. The government is also moving to bring more federal oversight to the Buenos Aires provincial police, long notorious for corruption.

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