The legacy of Nestor Kirchner, the powerful former leader of Argentina who died Wednesday, will likely be his independent streak, which led to his country bucking local and international trends, those who studied him and knew him say.
A defining moment of his presidency may have occurred a mere two months into his presidency some 30,000 feet above the ground, during a flight from New York to Buenos Aires.
It was 2003, and Kirchner had just had his first meeting with President George W. Bush. As he headed back to Argentina, his chief of staff, Alberto Fernandez, broke some news to the president: a Spanish court wanted to put on trial retired Argentine military officers accused of committing human rights violations during the country’s “Dirty War.”
This news required action, as former President Carlos Menem, in the name of national reconciliation, had decreed an amnesty for the officers. To say it was a sensitive topic was an understatement, with strong feelings on both sides about the fates of the officers.
Video: Nestor Kirchner dies
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“He was quiet, and waited a moment,” Fernandez recalled. “Then he said, ‘Bring me the paperwork tomorrow so we can undo the decree.'”
Just like that, Kirchner upset the status quo put in place by his predecessors.
“He knew precisely what he wanted to do,” Fernandez said.
Kirchner’s decision to take a different tack on the issue of accused human rights violators was met with equal parts of support and criticism from those who said it would keep the country from moving on.
Years later, the decision is viewed as a courageous one that helped Argentina face up to a dark period in its history.
“The fact is that he made human rights one of his central policies, something he didn’t have to do,” Fernando Reati, an Argentine professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, said. “He paid a political price for it, but he insisted on it.”
A second legacy for the deceased former president will be his tough stance in negotiating with the International Monetary Fund as Argentina climbed out of a great recession.
At one point, Argentina defaulted on an IMF loan rather than use the country’s foreign reserves to pay it, a risky move that ultimately proved to be a great bargaining chip for Kirchner. Eventually Kirchner renegotiated the country’s debt, and paid it all off.
“He took Argentina back from the precipice,” Reati said.
Fernandez, who as cabinet chief had to explain to the media that Argentina would not use its currency reserves to pay the IMF, cites the turnaround of the economic and fiscal health of the country as one of Kirchner’s greatest achievements. The country went from about $8 billion in reserves when he took office in 2003, to about $50 billion in 2007, Fernandez said.
Flouting the IMF was just one way that Kirchner paved an independent path for Argentina.
Under his leadership, Argentina began to pull itself out from underneath the influence of the United States, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal Washington think tank.
“He was a leading factor in positioning Argentina not as a traditional ‘me too’ country to the United States,” he said.
Birns cited Kirchner’s openness to develop fraternal relations with Venezuela and Cuba, two countries at odds with the United States.
As a result, Argentina’s foreign policy became more influential, especially after he left office and was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
“These weren’t issues that were enormously determinate of Argentina’s future, but were assertions of nondependency on the U.S.,” Birns said.
Kirchner’s influence remained after his term in office through UNASUR, a regional body created in part to balance out influence from the United States.
While he was a force in the region, his legacy outside of Argentina is limited by how much weight one gives to the nascent UNASUR, said Pablo Pinto, an Argentine professor of political science at Columbia University.
Inside the country, Kirchner learned how to navigate the corridors of power by making strong coalitions.
He became a power broker, Pinto said. “He was definitely a game-changer in the country,” he said.
The loss of Kirchner leaves a big void to be filled, he said.