Argentina's Surprise

Argentine President Néstor Kirchner's decision on July 25 to strip retired military officers of their long-standing immunity from extradition for human rights abuses during the 1976-1983 dictatorship led to the arrest of at least 40 people. But Kirchner is not only helping the country confront its "dirty war." The move could prove a masterstroke in consolidating the new Peronist President's political base.

Kirchner has surprised the skeptics. They shrugged when he pledged, upon taking office on May 25, to stamp out corruption and put an end to official impunity -- just as his predecessors have vowed. But Kirchner has distanced himself from the pack by doggedly pursuing some of the country's most mistrusted institutions -- the Supreme Court, police, and even labor unions, traditionally a staunch Peronist ally. In going after the military responsible for the disappearance of 30,000 suspected leftists in the last dictatorship, Kirchner, who was jailed briefly for activism in the 1970s, has homed in on the most powerful symbol of the old model he aims to break.

Argentines are applauding. Kirchner's popularity rating has soared to almost 80% -- an amazing jump given that he was elected by default with 23% of the vote after the top vote-getter, Carlos Menem, withdrew from a scheduled second round. Kirchner may need that political capital if he has to agree to tough, controversial demands from the International Monetary Fund to meet a September deadline for a new loan accord and roll over $6 billion in multilateral debt due by yearend.

By Joshua Goodman in Buenos Aires

Edited by Rose Brady

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