Death of a Gambler

Argentina's high-stakes former president Nestor Kirchner will continue to be larger than life, even in death.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack on Oct. 27, defined Argentina’s "naughties" in both his timing and his temper. Not only had he ruled officially as president or unofficially as the decision-making presidential spouse since 2003, but he did so brazenly. Often, his behavior was akin to a high-stakes gambler who thought of his country like a casino he could manipulate without comeuppance. Tellingly, the price of sovereign bonds soared and Argentine stocks saw their biggest rise in two years upon the news of his death.

Kirchner’s willingness to roll the dice will define his decade at Argentina’s political helm, just as his predecessor Raul Alfonsin is remembered for re-establishing democracy in the 1980s, and Carlos Menem, who privatized industries in the 1990s — occasionally with corrupt abandon — is remembered as making Argentina the poster child for the Washington Consensus. Kirchner broke all of Menem’s rules, nationalizing industry and increasing state interference, but he was effective at it. When the country was in fiscal crisis during his early years in office, Kirchner simply decided not to pay back most of what the country owed. He ignored the global monetary order and told the International Monetary Fund to get lost. And Argentineans loved it.

Kirchner really did love to gamble, even with his own money. In the small Patagonian town of El Calafate where he lived with his wife Cristina, the current president, a large casino hogs the prime location on the main street, dwarfing the hospital where he died. Before it was built, Kirchner — who was for 12 years governor of Santa Cruz province, where El Calafate is situated — would regularly drive into the next province to spend the night in a huge gambling house in Comodoro Rivadavia, owned by his friend Cristóbal López. He made the trip as often as gubernatorial business could allow — and shortly before leaving the presidency, issued an emergency decree that increased the number of slot machines at Buenos Aires’s main race course by 70 percent, while extending the expiry date of López’s license to run them from 2017 until 2032.

As president, however, Kirchner arrived at the table with very few chips. He was handed the job without a popular mandate when Menem withdrew from the second round of the 2003 election. Kirchner had won just 22 percent of the vote in the first round, thanks to the political machinery borrowed from Eduardo Duhalde, the incumbent.

Those who worked on committees with him in Santa Cruz speak of Kirchner as a paranoid, pugnacious pragmatist — traits that served him well in the period of economic and political disarray that followed Argentina’s historic sovereign default of late 2001. He was known to scour newspapers regularly for hints about whom not to trust; his thuggishness was aided by his inclusion of family members and Patagonian friends in ministerial posts. He was not adverse to bizarre, high-stakes bluffing. In 2009, he rounded up powerful local mayors and celebrities to join him on electoral lists in the midterm elections — never mind that many of them had publicly stated that they would not actually take up the jobs they were standing for.

Kirchner’s biggest gamble, however, was to pursue economic growth with little regard for the inflationary costs. At first it was easy to grow the economy quickly, as Argentina’s main export commodities, such as soy beans, fetched ever higher prices in the global marketplace, and empty factories and unemployed skilled laborers were put back to work. But as the money supply increased in Argentina, so did inflation. When signs of overheating became clear, Argentina’s statistics agency conveniently manipulated the official figures, and Kirchner handed power to his wife in the hope that the couple might toggle the presidency between them again in 2011.

While Cristina was in charge, protests over ever-rising taxes on agricultural exports damaged the couple’s brand, and Kirchner became a member of the lower house of Congress in an attempt to buoy his wife’s presidency. He announced his candidacy at the eleventh hour, keeping his cards close to his chest. But Kirchner eventually had to concede his bid for a congressional seat to his challenger, Francisco de Narváez, a wealthy businessman. He resigned as head of the Peronist political party, and the couple in power was generally shaken. Desperately clinging to power, Cristina passed laws to cripple her most powerful media critic, grabbed cash from the Central Bank, and passed a political reform bill that makes it harder for small parties — such de Narváez’s — to gain traction.

And then there were the couple’s shady business deals. In 2008, as the economy was falling into recession, the couple reported earnings of more than 25 times more than they had claimed in 2007, coming from a hotel in El Calafate called Los Sauces. According to the official declaration of Cristina’s assets, she and Nestor each owned 45 percent of Los Sauces. Odd then that Nestor Kirchner’s shares raked in more than five times the amount that his wife’s did in 2008. (An anti-corruption official looking into the matter resigned when he found his path blocked.)

Of course, Kirchner won’t be back as president now, and it is unclear whether Cristina will run again without her husband by her side. Yet if his death ended a political dynasty, it may have cemented the Kirchner legacy. His surprise passing from a sudden heart attack was fitting for a master of political brinkmanship. With it, he escaped what may have awaited him in the courts. He also died on the morning of the national census, when all businesses except pharmacies are closed by law; Argentines invariably spent the day at home, watching positive images of him running on repeat, on almost every TV channel.

His death also makes the 2011 presidential election much more interesting, and potentially, far more fair than electoral politics have been for a while in Argentina. For the first time in many years, the political field in Argentina is now wide open. Kirchner’s death has cleared the decks. It won’t be an anti-Kirchner pile-on, like the midterm 2009 elections: Cristina will benefit from an outpouring of sympathy that accompanies the passing of a national figure in an exceptionally mournful country. Instead, candidates will have to do more to win the 2011 election on their own merit. So perhaps, ironically, Kirchner will have achieved in death what he destroyed so consistently in his political life: the chance for a more reasonable, policy-driven political discussion in Argentina.

is a PhD student at Oxford University and former Argentina correspondent for  The Economist. Twitter: @annajessiep