Argentina marks 10 years of Kirchner rule

The "Era K," as the decade-old rule of Cristina Kirchner and her late husband Nestor is known in Argentina, is showing its age.

Together the couple have dominated Argentina since Nestor Kirchner was first elected president on May 25, 2003, with Cristina by his side, leading the country out of a devastating economic crisis to a heady period of surging growth.

Cristina, who succeeded Nestor in 2007, has had a more turbulent ride, weathering her husband's death of a heart attack in 2010 as she presided over a flagging economy that now appears threatened by high inflation.

Rising corruption, crime, and her increasingly authoritarian tone are additional signs that the country may be nearing the end of a major political cycle, critics say.

"It was extraordinary what they did in human rights and economics," said sociologist Jorge Giacobbe, who also consults for corruption watchdog Transparency International.

"But in speeches, Cristina offends people, she is abusive, she fights against farmers and the press, and she does not tolerate criticism," he added.

It's a long way from 2003, when Nestor Kirchner and his wife -- onetime leftist Peronist activists -- appeared on the scene at a low point in Argentine history.

The country had had three presidents in two years amid an economic crisis that ignited street riots and led to a historic default on its $132 billion foreign debt.

As president, Nestor Kirchner responded by slashing deficits through aggressive tax collection and controlling government spending, while at the same time rejecting IMF austerity plans and pouring funds into social welfare programs.

The economy took off, with annual growth rates of 8.9 percent in the early years, said Roberto Lavagna, Kirchner's economy minister and a key figure in the turnaround. But after 2007 growth subsided to 3.8 percent.

"There is no such thing as the Kirchnerista decade, except on the calendar," said Lavagna, a centrist who now opposes President Cristina Kirchner. "The fact is there were two very distinct periods, with very different policies and also results," he said.

In a recent report, the consulting firm Abeceb.com said the high growth, low inflation of the first stage has given way to a period of "scarcity" marked by currency controls, import restrictions and high inflation.

Polls show that inflation is the biggest issue for voters ahead of mid-term elections in October. The inflation rate is around 20 percent, among the highest in Latin America -- or half of that, if government statistics are to be believed.

The fallout from inflation is evident everywhere.

Kirchner, who has frozen food prices, this week called on her supporters to monitor prices at supermarkets to prevent further rises.

The strict currency controls Kirchner imposed at the start of her second term in 2011, which she won by a landslide, has driven Argentines to buy dollars in neighboring Uruguay, where long lines can be seen at ATMs.

Buying dollars is a traditional hedge against inflation for middle class Argentines with long memories of earlier bouts of triple-digit inflation.

Kirchner's rigid import barriers also have placed a burden on an economy that relies heavily on trade to finance oil and other foreign goods.

Economist Ramiro Castineira told AFP the fiscal surpluses that helped power growth through 2008 have dried up due to a skyrocketing foreign oil bill and government subsidies.

Beyond economics, the Kirchners have won praise for policies that have enabled the prosecution of military officials for human rights abuses committed during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

More than 200 have been convicted, including former dictator Jorge Videla, who died Friday in prison at age 87.

But the government also provoked controversy by ordering the break-up of one of Latin America's largest multimedia groups, the Clarin Group -- whose outlets have criticized Kirchner.

Lobbying by Kirchner's supporters to change the constitution to allow her to run for a third term in 2015 was met by huge demonstrations against what organizers called the "K Authoritarianism."

Polls say about 80 percent of the country is opposed to letting her run for another term.

The political and economic tensions, said Giacobbe, "are evidence that the end of a cycle has arrived."

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