Néstor Kirchner: Former President of Argentina credited with revitalising the country's economy

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Néstor Kirchner was Argentina's President for four years until he surprisingly stepped aside in 2007, without campaigning, for a fellow Peronist who would become the current President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. As her name suggests, she happened to be his wife. Many people thought this was strange – even more so recently, after Kirchner the husband said he would run against his wife a year from now in the nation's next presidential elections.

Needless to say, this raised eyebrows as it suggested a dynastic manoeuvre to "keep it in the family" and to find a way around the country's limit of two consecutive terms per person (but not per family). No one doubted that the husband remained the key policy-maker behind his wife, the President, particularly in economics.

For whatever reason, the Kirchners became widely-known in Argentina as "the Clintons of South America" or, more often, simply as los K ("The Ks"). These were, however, terms used more out of respect, or perhaps soap opera-style admiration, than denigration or derision. Néstor Kirchner was much loved by a large majority of his compatriots, who believe he saved them from the calamitous economic crisis of the first years of this millennium. A minority, mainly the wealthy élite and speculators, said publicly that his death was likely to be potentially positive for the country – or rather, perhaps, for them. Their financial markets agreed with them and soared after his death. Having described the International Monetary Fund as "a dictatorship" and "pathetic to listen to", Kirchner was considered "market-unfriendly" to his capitalist compatriots.

The markets apart, the reaction of Argentinians to Kirchner's apparent heart attack was astonishing, especially considering he was not a serving, but "merely" an ex-president. Argentina had seen nothing of the sort since the deaths of Juan Peró* or his wife Evita, whose politics the Ks perpetrated. Surely, only the nation's flawed but no-less-loved footballer Diego Armando Maradona will receive a send-off of such proportions. The Argentinian Football Association cancelled all matches at all levels this weekend, and some of the nation's best-known sports stars, including Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi and 2002 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian, sent emotional messages of condolence.

There were Princess Diana-like scenes at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires yesterday as hundreds of thousands of Argentinians gathered to greet his corpse from his home province of Santa Cruz, where he had died on Wednesday. Among them was one of the nation's most revered grandmothers, Estela de Carlotto, leader of the human-rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. De Carlotto has fought since the 1976-83 dictatorship to trace babies who were taken from alleged "subversives" – mostly students and intellectuals – during the dictatorship and handed over to childless military families. Kirchner and his wife had supported their cause. "He gave his life for his country," De Carlotto said yesterday. "Our country needed this man so much. He was indispensable."

Even Brazil, one of Argentina's historic arch-rivals, in economics, culture and, not least, football, was shocked by Kirchner's death. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning in his own country, to match the same period in Argentina, something almost unheard of among nations anywhere in the world. Whatever happens next, Kirchner's death has plunged his recovering nation into deep uncertainty.

Néstor Carlos Kirchner was born in the southern town of Río Gallegos on 25 February 1950, to descendants of Swiss and Croatian immigrants, one of whom had been a Swiss postman. He went to school in Río Gallegos before studying law at the University of La Plata in the capital, where he met his future wife, Cristina, also a law student.

He was elected governor of Santa Cruz province, one of Argentina's largest in terms of land mass but least-populated, in 1991, and re-elected in 1995 and 1999, taking him up to 2003 when he decided to go national. He won the 2003 presidential elections as Justicialist (Peronist) party candidate despite, or perhaps because of the fact he was not nationally-known, but respected as the three-time governor of his home state. He billed himself as an outsider, far from the corrupt corridors of the capital, Buenos Aires, and as the antithesis of his flamboyant, nipped-and-tucked and machine-tanned opponent, Carlos Menem. It was these roots in the frozen south, combined with his less-than-charismatic appearance, his pronounced lisp and lazy eye from a childhood illness that brought Kirchner the nickname El Pingüino – "The Penguin".

When he took over, Argentina's economy was on the ropes, if not on the canvas, a major embarrassment in a nation whose inhabitants, because of their immigration history, often consider themselves more European than South American, a cut above the rest of the continent – a nation of rugby and polo as well as football. Not only the working class, but the middle-classes, too, had angrily stormed banks demanding their savings, and six makeshift presidents had been and gone in the previous 18 months. The currency had been badly devalued and Argentina had defaulted on its $100m sovereign debts when Kirchner entered the Casa Rosada, the Pink House or presidential palace in Buenos Aires, with his wife, Cristina, as First Lady.        

Like his friend President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Kirchner turned his back on the World Bank, the IMF and the capitalist system in general. He offered holders of defaulted bonds over 33 cents in the dollar, which most saw as an offer they couldn't refuse – 33 per cent better than nothing. At the same time, he continued to spend on welfare programmes and public-works projects at home and sought to keep utility bills stable, a key to working and middle-class support. During his term, he dramatically increased employment and national growth, although the inflation rate suffered and is currently estimated at between the official figure of 11 per cent and independent figures of around 25 per cent, among the highest in the world.

Political and financial analysts have said that Kirchner's death has, in the words of one, "just thrown the deck of cards into the air" in Argentina and is bound to have a knock-on effect around Latin America, where some leaders are beholden to the market system, and others are seeking to cast it off in favour of populist policies.

If Kirchner needed any advice on how to have a successful economy, he got it, he said, in a private chat with the US President George W Bush after the start of the US incursion into Iraq. In a recent documentary made by Oliver Stone, entitled South of the Border, Kirchner said he had suggested to Bush that a kind of Marshall Plan was necessary to South America's economic problems of the time. "Hey, the best way to revitalise the economy is through war," Bush replied, according to Kirchner. "The US has grown stronger with war."

"He said it very clearly," Kirchner told Stone, who immediately replied to Kirchner: "I hope he didn't ask you to go to war." Kirchner merely smiled.

Néstor Kirchner is survived by his wife and their two children.

Néstor Kirchner, lawyer and politician: born Río Gallegos, Argentina 25 February 1950; married 1975 Cristina Fernandez (two children); died El Calafate, Argentina 27 October 2010.