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Pomp, Not Panic, During Argentine Leader's Inaugural

Nestor Kirchner takes office amid hopes for an end to the turmoil that marked the short presidencies that preceded his.

May 26, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — After 18 months of uncertainty and political drama, Argentina bore witness to something refreshing Sunday -- an elected president taking the oath of office amid great pomp and ceremony before an assembly of international leaders.

Unlike the four men who preceded him, Nestor Kirchner did not become president in the middle of the night, or in the midst of a national emergency, or with chunks of this cosmopolitan city occupied by riot police.

"Our past is full of failures, pain, confrontations, [and] energy wasted in sterile struggles," Kirchner, 53, said in his inauguration speech. "Now is the time for transformation, for the cultural and moral change the moment demands of us."

Kirchner inherits a public debt of $141 billion, an economy entering its fifth year of recession and a broken financial system that has helped bring down an elected president and four appointed ones in this once prosperous nation since December 2001.

A three-term governor of a sparsely populated province in wind-swept Patagonia, Kirchner finished second in the first round of voting for president on April 27 with just 22% of the vote. He was declared president-elect when the first-place finisher, former President Carlos Menem, dropped out of the runoff.

Argentines hope that Kirchner's swearing-in will mark the end of the turmoil that began when President Fernando de la Rua was driven from power by rioting and protests.

De la Rua was unable to extricate Argentina from the morass of debt he inherited from Menem, Argentina's president in the 1990s. Menem privatized the economy, lowered trade barriers and borrowed heavily to defend the country's currency.

In his speech Sunday, Kirchner offered an indictment of Menem's policies, saying they had concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. He said he would aim to foster a "national capitalism" that offers opportunities for social mobility.

Official unemployment here stands at 18%. Last year, the economy shrank 11%, one of the most precipitous economic slides in Latin American history.

Kirchner has said he plans to spend more than $1 billion on public works, including housing for the poor and new roads.

How the new president will pay for such projects is an open question. Kirchner's government will continue ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the country's lender of last resort. Argentina has already defaulted on $52 billion held by private lenders.

"They will only be able to collect if things go well for Argentina," Kirchner said Sunday. "We are not supporters of default. But we will not pay if it means Argentines have to give up their right to decent housing, a secure job and health care."

In a move sure to please IMF officials, Kirchner has retained Roberto Lavagna as economy minister. Under outgoing President Eduardo Duhalde, Lavagna stabilized the economy and negotiated a debt rollover with the fund.

Lavagna's temporary agreement with the fund ends Aug. 31, however. The new government will be forced to negotiate with the fund over the $3.5 billion in payments due before the end of the year.

Already there were signs last week that the acrimony between the fund's Washington-based officials and this country's leaders will continue.

Kirchner said he will not veto a recently approved bill that gives homeowners an amnesty from foreclosures. The IMF is opposed to the measure because of its impact on the banking system.

One of the new president's first official acts today, according to news reports, will be a meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who attended Sunday's inauguration along with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The official U.S. representative to the inauguration was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez.

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