Monday, July 21, 2003

CORDOBA, Argentina — As a candidate, Nestor Kirchner campaigned on a promise to combat the corrupt political elite and vested interests that grew rich in recent years as the nation plummeted into economic collapse.

Few expected Mr. Kirchner to keep his promise: Saying one thing and doing another is a well-worn tradition in Argentine politics.

But President Kirchner has defied forecasts that he would be beholden to his long-dominant Peronist party and raised guarded hopes from a skeptical public.

In his first six weeks in office, he proposed a flurry of measures to keep his campaign promises, spurning the U.S.-promoted economic policies that held sway during the 1989-1999 presidency of Carlos Menem.

“So far, Kirchner has represented the flip side of Menem and the 1990s,” said Juan Manuel Abal Medina, a political analyst. “If the ‘90s was the market, Kirchner is market regulation. If the ‘90s was corruption and decadence, Kirchner is austerity and good administration.”

His most praised move has been the ouster last month of Chief Justice Julio Nazareno, widely seen as a corrupt crony of Mr. Menem. One of five judges appointed by Mr. Menem and known as his “automatic majority,” Mr. Nazareno resigned June 27 rather than face an impeachment trial called for by Mr. Kirchner.

On July 3, legislators began impeachment proceedings against a second member of the “automatic majority,” Eduardo Moline O’Connor, at Mr. Kirchner’s urging. Mr. Moline O’Connor resigned from the court last week.

President Kirchner has also forced the retirement of half the country’s generals and admirals, fired top federal police officers, and initiated an overhaul of the notoriously corrupt federal pension and social security agency.

The purges have been well received by Argentines, who in recent years came to view their leaders and institutions with disdain. Public approval for Mr. Kirchner topped 80 percent in recent polls.

Contributing to his popular support has been an almost daily barrage of presidential declarations and actions, leading some Argentines to say Mr. Kirchner did more in his first week in office than former President Fernando de la Rua, driven from office by street protests in December 2001, did in two years.

“I didn’t expect things would move so fast,” said Silvia Varas, 42, a medical-clinic employee who spoiled her ballot in the April first-round election. “Taking out the head of the Supreme Court is something nobody had dared to do. It’s clear the guy wants to make changes,” she said.

As significant as the assault on the court, say analysts, was the decree Mr. Kirchner signed this month requiring the president to disclose the names and backgrounds of prospective candidates for the top judicial post, including their estates and tax records, and allowing for the input of citizens, human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations in their selection.

The decree helped muffle criticism that Mr. Kirchner had ulterior motives for the institutional shake-ups. As governor for 11 years of Santa Cruz province in Patagonia, Mr. Kirchner was accused of ruling with an autocratic hand and of packing the provincial supreme court and other public offices with political allies.

“The track record of Santa Cruz’s institutions is not good,” said Gustavo Gutierrez, who was vice presidential candidate on the center-left ARI party ticket.

“But I’m impressed with Kirchner,” he added. “In Argentina, there’s a saying that a pessimist is never wrong. Still, I’m optimistic. The objective conditions are there for Kirchner to have a great presidency.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the new administration has been a boldly progressive human rights policy. This contrasts starkly with Mr. Kirchner’s predecessors, most notably Mr. Menem.

Mr. Kirchner has ordered federal intelligence agents to testify about their investigation of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center, tainted by accusations of a cover-up involving Mr. Menem.

And last month the new administration broke with long-standing policy by not objecting to Mexico’s extradition of Ricardo Cavallo, a military officer during Argentina’s brutal 1976-83 dictatorship, to Spain to face charges of terrorism and genocide.

“That Kirchner has won 80 percent approval by making these kinds of decisions shows just how strong the social demand is for transparency and a strong human rights policy,” said Victor Abramovich, director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a leading human rights organization.

Mr. Kirchner, the impetuous former governor of a lightly populated province in Patagonia, was hardly known by Argentines a few months ago. He won 22 percent in a first-round election of April 27 and took office by default after Mr. Menem backed out of the runoff.

A relatively minor player in the powerful Peronist party, he has quickly dispelled the perception that he would be a tractable surrogate for departing President Eduardo Duhalde.

Still, it will be Mr. Kirchner’s ability to revive the nation’s moribund economy that will determine the success of his administration in the eyes of many Argentines. Here also Mr. Kirchner, who espouses a vigorous government role in the regulation and promotion of economic activity, has diverged from Mr. Menem, a champion of free-market policies favored by the United States.

On June 27, Mr. Kirchner signed a decree intended to curb speculative investment by requiring transfers of foreign capital to remain in the country for 180 days, a move that was quickly criticized by U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.

The Kirchner administration has also begun a review of government concessions to the formerly state-owned companies privatized under Mr. Menem. Mr. Kirchner has refused demands from these companies for higher prices to compensate for last year’s peso devaluation, despite pressure from the International Monetary Fund, until the contracts are scrutinized and public hearings are held.

In the past, Mr. Kirchner has been critical of the IMF’s role in aggravating Argentina’s economic slide by prescribing hefty budget cuts.

Mr. Kirchner has made Mercosur, the South American common market, the cornerstone of his foreign policy, breaking with the policy of “automatic alignment” between Argentina and the United States during the 1990s.

The Argentine president has nonetheless maintained cordial relations with the United States government, highlighted by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s visit to Buenos Aires last month, and his administration is negotiating a three-year credit with the IMF.

It is still not clear what belt-tightening measures and reforms the government will be forced to implement to close the deal and how they might compromise Mr. Kirchner’s so-called neo-Keynesian economic program, which includes heavy spending on public-works projects.

Despite the fresh mood of optimism, crisis-hardened Argentines remain tentative in their approval of Mr. Kirchner as winter settles into the southern cone.

“Apparently, things are changing, but we’ve got to give it some time,” said construction worker Luis Medina, 30, bundled in a sweater and heavy work pants as he slapped mortar on a brick wall on a recent chilly morning.

“If the president keeps it up as he started out, everything will be all right. If not, things will be the same as they’ve always been.”

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