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Argentine Politician Played Game of Survivor

Colorless governor Nestor Kirchner chose his allies well on his way to the presidency.

May 18, 2003|Hector Tobar and Andres D'Alessandro | Times Staff Writers

RIO GALLEGOS, Argentina — The next president of Argentina has not risen to power thanks to his charisma. He speaks with a heavy lisp and one of his eyes often wanders in a different direction from the other because of a childhood illness.

Nestor Kirchner, 53, is an unknown quantity to most Argentines. He won the presidency last week by default, when Carlos Menem, the suave and controversial former president, pulled out of the race four days before the election. He will be inaugurated next Sunday.

He is the governor of Santa Cruz province, a kind of Argentine Alaska with glaciers, snowcapped mountains and 200,000 residents. In a country where politicians are despised with uncommon vehemence, few people have anything bad to say about the governor from the far south. In fact, a Gallup poll this month found that 59% of the electorate had no opinion of Kirchner.

How a colorless politician from a remote and sparsely populated corner of Patagonia could rise to lead a country of 37 million people is testament to the depth and breadth of Argentina's economic crisis and its ripple effect on the political establishment. The country's major parties -- the Peronists and the Radicals -- have split into a total of six factions.

"The traditional two-party system is broken," wiped out by the "big bang" of Argentina's social crisis, said pollster Roberto Bacman. Five years of recession and double-digit unemployment have left one survivor to emerge from the rubble: Kirchner, a Peronist.

People in Santa Cruz know him as a caudillo, or strongman, albeit one who looks like an innocuous technocrat. The three-term governor is well-known not only for attacking the provincial budget with the frugal fastidiousness of his Swiss ancestors, but also for padding the payroll with jobs for party cronies.

"He runs this province as if it were a country estate," said a prominent lawyer here.

Responding to reports in the Buenos Aires media about authoritarianism in Santa Cruz, Kirchner campaign manager Alberto Fernandez said: "Argentina needs a president who knows how to wield power."

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The scion of a Patagonian family with roots in Croatia as well as Switzerland, Kirchner studied law and was a young Peronist militant during the reign of Argentina's military dictatorship. At one point in the mid 1970s, the local authorities threw him in jail for a few days.

He practiced law, starting a firm with his wife, Cristina Fernandez. Argentina's generals surrendered power in 1983 and four years later Kirchner was elected mayor of this city of 100,000 people. His wife won a seat in the provincial legislature.

After the provincial governor was impeached, Kirchner won the election to replace him in 1991. Facing a budget deficit, he had immediately moved to reduce the size of the provincial workforce when a federal court judge came to his rescue. The judge ruled in Santa Cruz's favor in a lawsuit, filed before Kirchner took office, over the royalties to oil beneath the provincial soil. Santa Cruz would be awarded $700 million in additional royalties. The layoffs were canceled.

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Today, Kirchner runs what amounts to a mini welfare state in Santa Cruz, where tourism and oil offer the only economic hope. As many as half of all adults depend on the provincial government for their income, either as public employees or recipients of welfare payments.

"Santa Cruz doesn't have a regional economy: It has no industry, no work for anybody," said Alfredo Almendra, a Peronist and former provincial legislator. "If you're not a public employee, you're unemployed."

That same wealth, critics here say, has funded an elaborate political apparatus serving the governor's interests. And much of the oil wealth has moved abroad, "to protect it from the vicissitudes of the Argentine economy," Kirchner said. About $500 million in provincial funds are in a Swiss bank account.

"We don't know of, nor have we seen any piece of paper from the governor that can confirm, the amount, or the interests and commissions which might have been paid," said Omar Muniz, of the pro-Menem Santa Cruz Federal Movement.

Still, much of the windfall has been spent on badly needed infrastructure. Kirchner's government built a hospital in the provincial capital, roads and an airport to shuttle tourists to the glaciers at Calafate.

Kirchner also increased the number of justices on the provincial supreme court, creating a majority sympathetic to his rule. The chief justice is a former low-level political operative and member of the pro-Kirchner "Los Muchachos Peronistas." And Kirchner's backers rewrote the constitution so he could be reelected governor in perpetuity.

Kirchner was reelected in 1995 and 1999. Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires and Argentina's populous north, the economic crisis deepened. It would consume the careers of most of the nation's top politicians.

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