The sudden death of Néstor Kirchner is a great loss, not only to Argentina but to the region and the world. Kirchner took office as president in May 2003, when Argentina was in the initial stages of its recovery from a terrible recession. His role in rescuing Argentina's economy is comparable to that of Franklin D Roosevelt in the Great Depression of the United States. Like Roosevelt, Kirchner had to stand up both to powerful moneyed interests and to most of the economics profession, which was insisting that his policies would lead to disaster. They were proved wrong, and Kirchner right.
Argentina's recession from 1998-2002 was, indeed, comparable to the Depression in terms of unemployment, which peaked at more than 21%, and lost output (about 20% of GDP). The majority of Argentines, who had, until then, enjoyed living standards among the highest in Latin America, were pushed below the poverty line. In December of 2002 and January 2003, the country underwent a massive devaluation, a world-historical record sovereign default on $95bn of debt, and a collapse of the financial system.
Although some of the heterodox policies that ultimately ensured Argentina's rapid recovery were begun in the year before Kirchner took office, he had to follow them through some tough challenges to make Argentina the fastest-growing economy in the region.
One major challenge came from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF had been instrumental in bringing about the collapse – by supporting, among other bad policies, an overvalued exchange rate with ever-increasing indebtedness at rising interest rates. But when Argentina's economy inevitably collapsed, the IMF offered no help, just a series of conditions that would impede the economy's recovery.
The IMF was trying to get a better deal for the foreign creditor. Kirchner rightly refused its conditions, and the IMF refused to roll over Argentina's debt.
In September of 2003, the battle came to a head when Kirchner temporarily defaulted to the IMF rather than accept its conditions. This was an extraordinarily gutsy move – no middle-income country had ever defaulted to the IMF; only a handful of failed or pariah states like Iraq or Congo. That's because the IMF was seen as having the power to cut off even trade credits to a country that defaulted to them.
No one knew for sure what would happen. But the IMF backed down and rolled over the loans.
Argentina went on to grow at an average of more than 8% annually through 2008, pulling more than 11 million people, in a country of 40 million, out of poverty. The policies of the Kirchner government, including the central bank targeting of a stable and competitive real exchange rate, and taking a hard line against the defaulted creditors – were not popular in Washington or among the business press. But they worked.
Kirchner's successful face-off with the IMF came at a time when the fund was rapidly losing influence in the world, after its failures in the Asian economic crisis that preceded Argentina's collapse. It showed the world that a country could defy the IMF and live to tell about it, and contributed to the ensuing loss of IMF influence in Latin America and middle-income countries generally. Since the IMF was, at the time ,the most important avenue of Washington's influence in low-and-middle-income countries, this also contributed to the demise of US influence, especially over the recently independent countries of South America.
Kirchner also played a major role in consolidating this independence, working with the other left governments including Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Through institutions such as UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations), Mercusor (the South American trading bloc), and numerous commercial agreements, South America was able to alter its trajectory dramatically.
This united bloc successfully backed Bolivia's government against an extra-parliamentary challenge from the right in 2008, and most recently stood behind Ecuador in that attempted coup there, a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, they did not succeed in overturning last year's military takeover in Honduras, where US backing for the coup government proved decisive. Argentina, together with UNASUR, still refuses to allow Honduras back into the OAS, despite heavy lobbying from Washington.
Kirchner also earned respect from human rights organisations for his willingness to prosecute and extradite some of the military officers accused of crimes against humanity during the 1976-1983 dictatorship – reversing the policies of previous governments. Together with his wife, current president Cristina Fernández, Néstor Kirchner made an enormous contribution in helping to move Argentina and the region in a progressive direction. These efforts have not generally won him much favour in Washington and in international business circles, but history will record him not only as a great president but also as an independence hero of Latin America.