The Miami Herald
Jan. 18, 2004

Kirchner must embrace right over popular

Andres Oppenheimer

  MONTERREY, Mexico -- I had never met Argentina's left-of-center president, Néstor Kirchner, until he granted me a 35-minute interview during his visit here last week for an antipoverty summit, so I was curious to find out whether he is as outdated and populist as some in Washington, D.C., believe.

  While Kirchner enjoys a massive 70 percent popularity rating in Argentina, influential voices inside and around the Bush administration say privately that he is fooling his country by selling the idea that it can grow without paying its foreign debts and restoring its credit-worthiness. Furthermore, they blame him for failing to lift his country from political adolescence by feeding its long tradition of blaming others for things going bad at home.

  Only two weeks ago -- before U.S.-Argentine relations got back on track at a Jan. 13 meeting here between President Bush and Kirchner that both sides describe as
  productive -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger F. Noriega had lamented publicly Kirchner's decision to upgrade relations with Fidel Castro's dictatorship only months after the summary execution of three people and the imprisonment of 75 peaceful opponents on the island.


  Is there a distorted view of your policies in the United States, I asked.

  Kirchner shrugged, and -- referring to Noriega's remarks -- said, ''Things matter depending on where they are coming from.'' He added that his 50-minute meeting with
  Bush last week was ''very good,'' and that ``I saw [Bush] with a spirit of solidarity and support for Argentina . . ., which does not mean that we don't have our

  Bush did not raise the Cuba issue during their meeting, he said. Asked about Argentina Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa's decision not to meet with Cuba's opposition leaders during a recent visit, Kirchner said: ``We are in favor of self-determination of the people. We do not like interfering in the internal affairs of the people. So Bielsa took the decision within that framework.''

  I'm glad you bring up the issue of the Cuban people, I said. Because human rights groups world-wide are saying the Cuban people should be allowed to vote, to be free to say what they want.

  ''Well, the Cuban people also don't want to be isolated,'' he responded. ``I think it's a problem for the Cuban people to resolve.''

  Q: Are you saying that your government will not talk with Cuba's peaceful opposition?

  A: Well, it would be a mistake to make such a definitive statement. We shall see. It's very important to be there, to talk with the people. I don't condemn those who think differently. I want to see the evolution of things.

  [In a separate interview, Bielsa told me that, on his next trip to Havana, ``I would try to meet with [the dissidents].'']

  Q: Will you go to Cuba this year?

  A: Well, at one point I will go. I can't assure you [whether it will be this year], but it may be. Why not? I have gone to New York, to Miami, why shouldn't I go to Cuba?

  Q: Since your government considers itself ''progressive,'' why can't you do what progressive European countries do, which is to oppose both the U.S. trade embargo and the violation of fundamental rights in Cuba?

  A: We all have a view on this issue. I think that last year's events in Cuba had negative repercussions. They were not precisely an accomplishment by Fidel . . . I respect self-determination, and that's why I support Argentina's abstention [at the upcoming United Nations human rights commission meeting], which is the position Argentina took last year.

  Asked about his frequent smiling meetings at the presidential palace with Hebe de Bonafini, a self-proclaimed Argentine human rights leader who applauded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and supports the suppression of freedoms in Cuba, Kirchner said, ''I have a lot of affection for her'' as a mother who suffered the loss of her child, but that ''we have always been politically at different corners.'' He added, ``If I had to agree with everyone who comes to my office, I couldn't receive anybody.''

  And how does he feel when journalists say there is a leftist Argentina-Brazil-Venezuela-Cuba axis?

  "It neither bothers me nor keeps from bothering me, because each of us knows what he is. I can only talk about one clear axis in South America, and that's the
  Brazil/Argentina or Argentina/Brazil axis. That's a reality. Journalists have the right to express their opinions, but it suffices to see the joint policies we have undertaken
  [with Cuba and Venezuela] to see that there have been none. Which does not mean that I agree with efforts to isolate [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez or any other president. On the contrary, I think that dialogue is fundamental.''


  My first impression of Kirchner? On the positive side, he is not messianic, he is quite frank -- like when he told me he doesn't like my columns -- and he is quite right in
  defending his country's interests on issues such as U.S. and European protectionism. He has also created a new sense of optimism in Argentina.

  On the negative side, he has a skewed perception of human rights that leads him to play down abuses by leftist dictatorships, and he may be too confident that Argentina can lift itself from bankruptcy without reinserting itself in the global economy once its current recovery -- based on high commodity prices, low U.S. interests rates and the extra cash-flow resulting from Argentina's suspension of debt payments -- is over. Whether you look at China, Spain or Chile, I don't know of one single country that has reduced its poverty rates in the long run while pursuing policies of isolation.

  The good news is that Kirchner is no Chávez. The bad news is that, in a world where countries are outbidding each other for a limited pool of money, it will take much
  more than that to regain the confidence of Argentine and foreign investors.