By Asad Ismi
At the end of October, Argentina lost its economic saviour who made the country part of the Latin American Revolution. Néstor Kirchner, former President of Argentina and husband of the current President, Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner, died on October 27 from a heart attack. He was 60. While serving as President from May 2003 to December 2007, he brought Argentina out of an economic collapse caused by U.S.-imposed neoliberalism, also known as the ‘‘Washington Consensus.’’
As I wrote in the March 2003 Monitor, ‘‘After a decade of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-enforced austerity [the IMF is dominated by the U.S.], high interest rates, wholesale privatization, and massive corruption, Argentina is a catastrophe: its economy has completely collapsed, with a 67% decline in national income and 50% of its people living below the poverty line. It defaulted on its [$95 billion] international debt in December 2001.
As Latin America’s second biggest economy after Brazil, Argentina was the most prosperous and industrially developed nation in the region and the most faithful follower of neoliberal policies. Argentina privatized almost all state assets, most crucially the banking system, which allowed foreign banks to loot the country and transfer $197 billion abroad. Such an enormous capital flight, combined with 90% interest rates, crippled industrial production and destroyed the national banking system. Neoliberalism meant the sucking-out of Argentina’s wealth into the coffers of the U.S. and other northern economies, leaving the country in total disintegration.’’
Argentina’s dire fate was repeated all over Latin America, leading one observer to remark, “What is called a financial contagion is in reality the collapse of an economic model based on U.S. pillage, local corruption, and joint exploitation.”
When Kirchner came into office in May 2003 (representing the Peronist Party), he was under enormous pressure from the U.S. and IMF to keep following their neoliberal policies that had caused Argentina’s economic disaster. He firmly refused to do so and chose instead to temporarily default to the Fund itself, which few states had done until then because the IMF could cut off almost all credit to countries that refused to comply. Faced with Kirchner’s determination, the IMF relented and rolled over Argentina’s debt.
The importance of this victory cannot be overemphasized. It broke the hold of the U.S. and IMF over Argentina and spurred the collapse of U.S. power all over Latin America. When other countries in the region saw that Kirchner had enabled Argentina to defy the U.S. and IMF, they were emboldened to follow his example — and did so. In this way, Kirchner’s courage became a key stimulant for the growing Latin American Revolution, helping encourage the emergence of 10 left-wing governments in the region.
Kirchner’s political brilliance is displayed in this victory, particularly since it was not achieved from a position of strength, but at a time when Argentina’s economy was seriously depressed. He actually deployed the economic collapse as a strategic master-stroke to end Washington’s long domination of Argentina. Only a bold and resourceful revolutionary could have accomplished such a remarkable feat.
After defeating the IMF, Kirchner increased public spending, especially on welfare and public works programs, instituted strict controls on capital as well as on exports and imports, re-negotiated debt owed to creditors, kept the devalued peso low, and nationalized major enterprises.
These steps, along with rising world prices for Argentina’s commodities (including beef and soybeans), created a booming, prosperous economy which grew at an average annual rate of 8% during 2003-2008, lifting 11 million Argentines out of poverty (out of a population of 40 million). Kirchner’s public approval rating soared to 80%, ensuring that his wife Cristina (whom he stepped aside for) would win the presidency in 2007.
The nationalizations included Aerolineas Argentinas, the country’s national airline; Correo Argentino, the postal service; Aguas Argentinas, the water utility; Transener, the energy transportation company; and the railroads. Most of these important companies had been under foreign control. Kirchner paid off Argentina’s debt after offering creditors 33 cents on the dollar. They could take that or get nothing.
Kirchner stressed holding businesses accountable to Argentina’s democratic institutions and environmental laws. He pledged to not allow his government to be influenced by interests that “benefited from inadmissible privileges in the last decade.’’ These groups, said Kirchner, were privileged by an economic model that favoured “financial speculation and political subordination” of politicians to élites.
According to Kirchner, in the Argentina before his election, ‘‘genocide, theft, and corruption proliferated.’’ Having set the economy right, Kirchner next pursued the perpetrators of genocide, the Argentine military. He overturned amnesty laws that set free hundreds of army officers accused of murders, torture, disappearances, and baby kidnappings during Argentina’s U.S.-instigated military dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983. The dictatorship killed about 30,000 Argentines. With amnesties repealed, prosecutors have charged hundreds of former military officers and convicted dozens, including generals.
Five hundred babies were stolen from their parents by the military dictatorship.
The baby-snatching was systematic and planned at the highest levels. “There was a whole structure in the armed forces to appropriate the children of leftists and place them in ideologically well-constituted families,” General Omar Riveros testified. As war trophies, the children would be removed from what the junta considered “sick, Marxist, subversive” environments and given to childless military families for a “Christian upbringing.” However, some babies were considered already “contaminated by subversion” and were therefore killed. One political prisoner was forced to watch his 20-day-old baby being tortured with electric cattle prods in an effort to make the prisoner talk. Some babies were also sold on the black market.
“All the mothers were killed after birth,” said José Luis D’Andres Mohr, an Army captain who quit during the repression. Blindfolded and chained to their beds, the women were subjected to caesarian deliveries and then had their babies snatched from their breasts. Patricia Roisinblit, a 26-year-old medical student, said she was “happy and radiant” after giving birth in 1978 in the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) in Buenos Aires, the most infamous torture and killing centre during the repression. According to her friend and fellow prisoner, Miriam Lewin, “he was a beautiful and healthy baby boy” whom Patricia named Rodolfo. At that moment, Patricia and Miriam did not think that the new mother would soon be murdered. “It was something too awful to conceive. My imagination had limits,” Miriam explained. To be pregnant was an automatic death sentence. Of the 5,000 prisoners held at ESMA, only 150 got out alive.
Néstor Kirchner and his wife, President Cristina Kirchner, have supported efforts to re-unite the babies whose parents were killed by the military with their biological grandparents. Among these children was Alejandro Sandoval, now 32, who was brought up by a military intelligence officer and only recently learned that his parents were murdered by the security forces. As Sandoval put it, “For me, Néstor and Cristina are like my parents because they helped me get back my identity, and now I know who I am.”
The main reason for the military’s mass murder was economic (and aimed at achieving the same results as neoliberalism): to turn what was becoming an industrialized, middle class society into a low-wage haven for multinational corporations by breaking the growing strength of the unions and salaried sectors. As David Rockefeller (whose loans to the military junta helped finance the repression) put it, “I have the impression that finally Argentina has a regime which understands the private enterprise system.” Under populist President Juan Domingo Peron, who governed from 1946-1955 and from 1973-1974, the power of the organized working and middle classes had grown rapidly as he forged political alliances with them. This threatened the position of the military and landed élite, which preferred to rule in collaboration with foreign capital. Such tensions had caused the armed forces to overthrow six governments since 1930.
Kirchner not only put the military on trial, but also publicly humiliated it, while (like Peron) forging strong alliances with unions, the poor, and the middle class. Another important part of Argentina’s defiance of the U.S., and rejection of corporate domination and neoliberalism under Kirchner, has been his promotion of the Latin American Revolution, beginning with his historic victory over the IMF in 2003. With 10 left-wing governments in power today, Latin America has been leading the world in implementing progressive social change on both national and regional levels. Along with Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Lula da Silva of Brazil, with whom he aligned himself, Kirchner was a major supporter of such policies, especially integration.
Kirchner was the first Secretary-General of the Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) formed in Brazil. Twelve South American countries are members of UNASUR, a regional integration initiative which includes a parliament, a presidential forum, and a secretariat. The countries are Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, and Uruguay. Kirchner was unanimously elected Secretary-General.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a main force behind UNASUR’s creation, stated at its creation: ‘‘Some kick and yell, but will not be able to stop the South American revolution… [UNASUR is] a project of the change unleashed in this last decade — which could be the driving force of changes around the world.’’ UNASUR’s main tasks are eliminating poverty and illiteracy.
In paying tribute to Kirchner, South American leaders emphasized his role in promoting regional integration. President Lula da Silva of Brazil called Kirchner ‘‘a great ally and close friend [who] played an important part in the economic, social, and political rebuilding of his country and made important efforts in the common struggle for South American integration.’’ President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay said that he was ‘‘shocked by the sudden death of a friend and companion in the construction of an inclusive Latin America, with a fundamental role in the processes of integration in the region.’’
The 12 nations of UNASUR stated jointly: “The death of Néstor Kirchner deprives Latin America of a key leader in the building of an inclusive region… He was convinced of the unity of Latin American peoples. He fought for profound changes in his country and Latin America, and worked from different agencies for social justice, equity, democracy, and integration.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, December 2010/January 2011
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution which has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. The documentary can be heard on this website under the “audio” category. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA. This article is the ninth in a series on the Latin American Revolution.