The Miami Herald
 Jun. 14, 2003

Eager to show who is in charge, Argentine leader shakes up ranks


  BUENOS AIRES - Less than three weeks in office, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner has fired 37 senior military officers and 80 percent of the Federal Police
  commanders and launched a campaign to impeach the president of the Supreme Court.

  Such bold moves would normally be considered a show of strength. But in Kirchner's case it underlined his weakness: The discredited security forces and judiciary were easy targets for a man who won the presidency with only 22 percent of the vote.

  ''Kirchner knows he is weak, so he is trying to generate power through over-action,'' said Rosendo Fraga, a leading political and military analyst. ``He is someone who
  insists on what he is saying by pounding the table. But the more true power you have, the less you need to show it.''

  Eager to establish his authority, set a tone of renewal and remove potential roadblocks to his four-year rule, Kirchner has indicated he plans more radical changes in this country of 37 million people still staggering from its worst economic crisis in history.

  ''Change is the name of the future,'' Kirchner said during his inaugural address before Congress on May 25. ``This is the opportunity for transformation, for cultural and
  moral change.''


  Kirchner entered the presidential election as a long shot, the little-known governor of a remote Patagonian province. He won with the smallest popular support since 1916 after former President Carlos Menem narrowly won the first round of voting in April but dropped out of the race amid predictions that he would suffer a landslide defeat in the runoff.

  In his first weeks in office, Kirchner has adopted what analysts here call a ''hyperactive'' rate of reform in an effort to create the clout not afforded him at the ballot box.

  He replaced 20 army generals, 15 navy admirals and 12 air force brigadiers -- more than half the armed forces leadership -- then swiftly purged 80 percent of Federal
  Police commanders.

  He also reopened efforts to impeach several Supreme Court justices, who are considered so loyal to Menem they are widely referred to as his ''automatic majority,'' and replaced the head of the government's largest social welfare program.

  Change here is welcomed by a population battered by political and economic crisis that saw five presidents in 10 days in 2001 and the near disappearance of its once-solid middle class.

  Former President Fernando de la Rúa, who took office in 1999 after 10 years of Menem rule, was considered remote and ineffective, and was forced to step down during violent street protests in December 2001. Caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde, who finished out de la Rúas term, made few major changes as he tried to stabilize the countrys economy following the largest foreign debt default in history and a freeze on personal savings accounts.

  Kirchners hands-on governing style began showing two days after he took office when he resolved a two-month-long teachers strike in the province of Entre Ríos affecting 160,000 students.

  ''At least Kirchner is showing a predisposition to act, which no one else has shown up until now,'' said Gabriela Urbaneja, 24, a law student at the University of Buenos
  Aires. ``But its not enough. Everyone is waiting for more changes -- in banking, in education, in unemployment.''

  Military and political analysts say Kirchner struck at the armed forces, in the most profound reorganization of the Argentina military since the return to democracy, because they had little power to fight back.

  Seven years of military rule blamed for 30,000 ''disappearances'' ended in 1983, following the disastrous war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands the year before. Since then, the disgraced armed forces have played a bit part in national politics, said Fraga, the analyst.

  ''The armed forces in Argentina are the most subordinated to political power in Latin America,'' Fraga said. ``Their defeat in the war left them unable to negotiate the
  transition to civilian rule.''

  ''The armed forces became the property of the state,'' said Juan Carlos Melian Massera, a congressional advisor on defense issues. Removed from politics, the armed
  forces have increasingly taken on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions at home and abroad because ''they were looking for something to do,'' said Luis Tibiletti,
  another congressional defense advisor.

  Military personnel have passed out food to fight starvation in the province of Tucúman and provided disaster relief during floods last month in the province of Santa Fe.

  Lt. Gen. Roberto Bendini, appointed by Kirchner to replace the army's top general, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni, served with U.N. missions on the Iran-Iraq border and in


  Military analysts suggest that Kirchners drastic purge of top brass may be the first step in an overhaul of military operations to deal with new global threats to peace.

  Kirchner alluded to that possibility during a recent speech at the Military School: ``International terrorism must be taken into account in the development of new theories
  of conflict.''

  But most experts believe that Kirchner is eager to keep the armed forces out of the news, and predict that changes in their mission will take place slowly.