Continuity and Change During the K Era in Argentina

By Dr. Guy Burton | 28 October 2010



The death of former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner (2003-07) provides an opportunity to reflect on Argentina’s domestic politics, economy and foreign policy. The past decade has been a significant one for the country, with a considerable amount of change. Ten years ago, few international observers would have even known who Nestor Kirchner was. Today, his presidency and that of his successor and widow, Cristina Kirchner (2007-11), may be seen as a break with the past.


The K Era – as the Kirchners’ presidencies have come to be known – certainly feels substantially from what preceded it. Following the return to democracy in the 1980s, during the 1990s the country was subject to a strong dose of neoliberalism and structural adjustment, prompted by international financial institutions like the IMF and overseen by a right-wing Peronist president, Carlos Menem (1989-99). It was a time of economic liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation ethos, all arguably underpinned by a fixed exchange rate between the peso and the US dollar in 1991. The model constituted the consensus at the time and was followed in Brazil in 1994 before being taken to a more extreme conclusion with the dollarization of the Ecuadoran and El Salvadoran economies in 2000 and 2001 respectively. The Argentine flexed exchange rate helped keep inflation and down and prices stable, while at the same time encouraging greater imports. External spending not only meant the loss of domestic capital, but funds that could both be invested in the local economy and repay Argentina’s debts.


In 2001-02 the economic good times came to a juddering halt. A declining economy and a financial crisis led to a run on the banks and chaos. The centre-left president, Fernando de la Rua, resigned and Argentina entered a period of political and economic instability, which only came to an end with Kirchner’s presidential election ‘victory’, following Menem’s decision to withdraw from the second round run-off in 2003.


Despite the uncertainty surrounding Kirchner, he soon became one of the leading lights of the various left-wing governments that were emerging in Latin America during the decade. First, he appeared willing to turn his back on the financial model that had dominated Argentina since the 1980s. He announced a default on Argentine debt. But whereas this would have made the country a pariah during the neoliberal heyday, paradoxically it gave him greater leverage with the IMF to negotiate and reschedule the debt payments. This was partly to do with Argentina’s image as a poster boy for the IMF in the past, having introduced many of the neoliberal measures that it had demanded.


Second, Kirchner’s leftward turn was evident in his and his international peers’ greater commitment towards greater regional integration. Early in his presidency he played host to Brazil’s President Lula, where both agreed what came known as the Buenos Aires Consensus. This included a shift away from the US-inspired Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) in favour of more institutionalisation at the regional level, including in Mercosur (the trading bloc which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela as its members). The name of the initiative also presented a more progressive alternative to the neoliberal Washington Consensus which dominated much of the discourse of the 1980s and 1990s. Other proposals supported by Kirchner included the formation of the South American states’ organisation, UNASUR (of which he was secretary-general from May this year until his death) and the proposal between him and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to build a cross-continent pipeline and the establishment of a Bank of the South to provide funds within the region.


However, the K Era has never been as transformative as it appeared. This was largely due to structural factors. Domestically, although associated with the Left, Kirchner never broke the power of the Argentine Right. Economically, he was not as radical as was sometimes portrayed, neither declaring himself against the market nor seeking to create a version of 21st century socialism in Argentina, as Chavez did in Venezuela. Beyond his restructuring of Argentine debt, his solution to the economic crisis was to encourage economic growth. But rather than do this through a greater role for the state, it was the peso’s devaluation that enabled large landowners (and especially soybean producers) to take the lead. That the influence of the agro-business sector was sustained was felt early on in Cristina’s presidency, through their four-month strike against a proposed tax on the soybean exports. Politically, his attempt to build a stronger base between the leftist elements of the Peronist party and society floundered by the midpoint of his own presidency. An attempt to rescue declining political support for his wife led to the 2009 legislative elections being held earlier, in July. Although the Kirchners succeeded in remaining the largest party, they lost their absolute majority in Congress and lost in Buenos Aires, both the largest province and a significant Peronist stronghold.


Externally, beyond the leverage provided by the financial crisis at the start of the decade, Argentina has not been able to impose itself either regionally or globally. In particular the Kirchners’ foreign policy has been constrained by the dominant regional power, Brazil. Although both Brazilian and Argentine presidents share a common vision for greater integration, both the content and vested interests have varied. For example, Brazil’s influence in terms of exports and markets far outweighs those of its partners in Mercosur. Similarly, Kirchner’s Bank of the South initiative with Chavez was watered down by Brazilian acquiescence in the project. At the same time, while both Argentina and Brazil want a greater regional presence on international bodies, Argentine foreign policy has been opposed to the Brazil’s goal of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (along with South Africa and India). Although Brazil’s objective has yet to be achieved, arguably this proposal has received greater public awareness than the Argentine alternative of increasing the number of non-permanent members and allowing their re-election. However, even when Argentine foreign policy is in line with Brazilian, as was the case on the need for greater financial regulation and reform in the G20 London summit, I would suggest that it is to Brasilia rather than Buenos Aires that global leaders look for Latin American leadership.


With Nestor Kirchner’s death, it is now uncertain whether the K Era will continue after the end of next year. Before his health complications earlier in the year there had been some suggestions that Nestor Kirchner would run in next year’s presidential election to succeed his widow. His popularity was such that he was able to transfer his popularity to Cristina during her campaign in 2007. However, her polls soon declined and were reinforced through the poor showing at the 2009 legislative elections. Furthermore, Nestor Kirchner’s popularity was the result of his willingness to stand up to the international financial community in the early part of the decade. It did not involve the creation of a strong political base or the revitalisation of Argentina’s relatively weak and still impoverished civil society following the banking crisis and unemployment. At the same time he never curbed the power of dominant elites in the country. In the absence of these measures, it was not necessarily the case that he would have won next year’s election – or that a candidate put forward by himself and Cristina will do so.


Guy Burton is a research associate for the Latin America International Affairs Programme at the LSE Ideas Centre.


LSE IDEAS is a centre for the study of international affairs, diplomacy and grand strategy at the London School of Economics. This blog features articles, resources, reviews and opinion pieces from academics associated with LSE IDEAS.

Previous post The Ecuadorian Coup: Its Larger Meaning
Next post Anglo-French Union, Again?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.