The unexpected death a few days ago of Nestor Kirchner deprived not only Argentina of a remarkable, albeit controversial leader. It also took away an exemplary figure in the Global South when it came to dealing with international financial institutions.
Kirchner defied the creditors. More importantly, he got away with it.
The full significance of Kirchner’s moves must be seen in the context of the economy he inherited on his election as Argentine president in 2003. The country was bankrupt, having defaulted on $100 billion of its debt. The economy was in a depression, its gross domestic product having declined by over 16 percent that year. Unemployment stood at 21.5 percent of the work force, and 53 percent of Argentines had been pushed below the poverty line. What was once the richest country in Latin America in terms of per capita income plunged below Peru and parts of Central America.
Argentina’s crisis stemmed from its faithful adherence to the neoliberal model. The financial liberalization that served as the proximate cause of the collapse was part and parcel of a broader program of radical economic restructuring. Argentina had been the poster child of globalization, Latin-style. It brought down its trade barriers faster than most other countries in Latin America and liberalized its capital account more radically. It followed a comprehensive privatization program involving the sale of 400 state enterprises — including airlines, oil companies, steel, insurance companies, telecommunications, postal services, and petrochemicals – a complex responsible for about seven percent of the nation’s annual domestic product.
In the most touching gesture of neoliberal faith, Buenos Aires adopted a currency board and thereby voluntarily gave up any meaningful control over the domestic impact of a volatile global economy. This system tied the quantity of pesos in circulation to the quantity of in-coming dollars. This policy, as the Washington Post writer Paul Blustein observed, handed over control of Argentina’s monetary policy to Alan Greenspan, the U.S. Federal Reserve chief who was on top of the world’s supply of dollars. This was, effectively, the dollarization of the country’s currency.
The U.S. Treasury Department and its surrogate, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), either urged or approved of all of these measures. In fact, even with financial liberalization called into question in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, then-Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers extolled Argentina’s selling off of its banking sector as a model for the developing world: “Today, fully 50 percent of the banking sector, 70 percent of private banks, in Argentina are foreign-controlled, up from 30 percent in 1994. The result is a deeper, more efficient market, and external investors with a greater stake in staying put.”
As the dollar rose in value, so did the peso, making Argentine goods non-competitive both globally and locally. Raising tariff barriers against imports was not an option owing to the technocrats’ commitment to the neoliberal tenet of free trade. Instead, borrowing heavily to fund the dangerously widening trade gap, Argentina spiraled into debt. The more it borrowed, the higher the interest rates rose as international creditors grew increasingly alarmed. Money began leaving the country. Foreign control of the banking system facilitated the outflow of much-needed capital by banks that became increasingly reluctant to lend, both to the government and to local businesses.
Backed by the IMF, the neoliberal government nevertheless continued to keep the country in the straitjacket that the peso-dollar currency board arrangement had become. As George Soros observed, Argentina “sacrificed practically everything on the altar of maintaining the currency board and meeting international obligations.”
The crisis unfolded with frightening speed in late 2001, forcing Argentina to go to the IMF for money to service its mounting debt. After earlier providing loans, the IMF refused its pupil this time, leading to the government’s $100 billion debt default. Businesses collapsed, people lost jobs, capital left the country, and riots and other forms citizen unrest toppled one government after another.
When Kirchner won the elections for the presidency in 2003, he inherited a devastated country. He saw the choice as debt or resurrection, putting the interests of the creditors first or prioritizing economic recovery. Kirchner offered to settle Argentina’s debts but at a steep discount. He would write off 70-75 percent, repaying only 25-30 cents to the dollar. The bondholders screamed and demanded that the IMF discipline Kirchner. Kirchner repeated his offer and warned the bondholders that this was a one-time offer that they had to accept or lose the rights to any repayment. He told the creditors that he would not tax poverty-ridden Argentines to pay off the debt and invited them to visit his country’s slums to “experience poverty first hand.” Faced with his determination, the IMF stood by helplessly and a majority of the bondholders angrily accepted his terms.
Indeed, Kirchner played hardball not only with the creditors but with the IMF. He told the Fund in early 2004 that Argentina would not repay a $3.3 billion installment due the IMF unless it approved a similar amount of lending to Buenos Aires. The IMF blinked and came up with the money. In December 2005, Kirchner paid off the country’s debt to the IMF in full and booted the Fund out of Argentina.
For over two decades, since the Third World debt crisis in the early 1980s, developing country governments had considered defying the creditors. There had been a few quiet defaults on payments, but Kirchner was the first to publicly threaten the lenders with a unilateral haircut and make good on that promise. Stratfor, the political risk analysis firm, pointed out the implications of his high-wire act: “If Argentina walks away from its private and multilateral debts successfully—meaning it doesn’t collapse economically when it is shut out of international markets after repudiating its debt—then other countries might soon take the same path. This could finish what little institutional and geopolitical relevance the IMF has left.”
And indeed, Kirchner’s act contributed to the erosion of the credibility and power of the Fund in the middle of this decade.
Argentina did not collapse. Instead, it grew by a remarkable 10 percent per year over the next four years. This was no mystery. A central cause of the high rate of growth was the financial resources that the government reinvested in the economy instead of sending outside as debt service. Kirchner’s historic debt initiative was accompanied by other moves to throw off the shackles of neoliberalism: the adoption of a managed float for the Argentine peso, domestic price controls, export taxes, sharply increased public spending, and caps on utility rates.
Kirchner did not confine his reforms to the domestic sphere. He undertook high-profile initiatives with other progressive leaders in Latin America, such as the sinking of the Washington-sponsored Free Trade of the Americas and efforts to bring about greater economic and political cooperation. Emblematic of this alliance was Venezuela’s $2.4 billion purchase of Argentine bonds, which enabled Argentina to pay off all of the country’s debt to the IMF.
Along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Kirchner was one of several remarkable leaders that the crisis of neoliberalism produced in Latin America. Mark Weisbrot, who captured his continental significance, writes that Kirchner’s moves “have not generally won him much favor 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.”