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Fernando de la Rúa: 1937—: Politician, Lawyer

Ran For President

Boosting de la Rúa's conservative image were blatant profiteering in Menem's cabinet and mounting crime and unemployment while the president partied, entertained the smart set, and kept on the move in his Ferrari and presidential jet. In 1999 de la Rúa defeated Graciela Fernández Meijide in a run-off for candidacy representing the Alianza, a center-left coalition of the UCR and the National Solidarity Front (FREPASO). He toppled Menem, largely on issues that the former president himself raised by arrogant public behavior and a disdain for populist issues. Vying against Eduardo Duhalde, the Justicialist Party contender, de la Rúa surveyed a muddled political scene. He touted his reputation for sobriety and fiscal responsibility and promised to cut discretionary spending, create new jobs, and halt the corruption for which Menem was notorious.

Applying contrast as his campaign strategy, de la Rúa admitted to being an unflashy gardener and chess and golf player. An expert on Argentine law and the author of five texts on legal issues, he pictured himself on TV ads as a boring nine-to-five politician intent on ushering out Menem's good-timing associates. With a plurality of 48.5 percent to Duhalde's 38.1 percent, on October 24, 1999, de la Rúa won the election, ending a decade of the decadent Menemists. Thousands of well-wishers stood outside his Buenos Aires hotel suite and cheered. On December 10, de la Rúa moved his wife, Inés Pertiné, and their three children into Casa Rosada, the presidential residence known as the "pink palace."

At his first-floor office overlooking the Plaza de Mayo, de la Rúa countenanced the imprisonment of the former military dictator's henchmen for kidnapping and selling infants born to political prisoners. He began making immediate improvements in pocketbook issues by lowering fuel costs, highway tolls, and railroad freight prices and by maneuvering through congress more flexibility in labor practices. He faced off against powerful trade unions and curtailed partying and frivolity in high office by selling the presidential jet. By flying on commercial airlines, he set an example for his staff. Most important for the nation's future, he pledged to raise the credit rating as an enticement to foreign investors.

Although analysts of Latin American politics were dubious of de la Rúa's ability to actualize so stringent an austerity plan, he won converts with persuasive dialogue. He methodically replaced dysfunctional department heads and mismanagers and appointed a competent, low-key cabinet, including Foreign Minister Adalberto Rodriguez and Economy Minister Jose Luis Machinea. Lacking a majority, de la Rúa faced an unending realignment of consensus against a proMenem senate, supreme court, and General Confederation of Labor, all stacked against the left. On de la Rúa's side stood a workable minority in the Chamber of Deputies and a majority of state governors. Within two months, he was battling tax evaders, dealers in contraband, money launderers, drug lords, and graft takers and making inroads against religious intolerance.

Cracks appeared in the façade with public disclosure of a higher deficit than Menem's economic ministry admitted to. In June of 2000 he blamed Spain's Iberia Airlines for sending into receivership Aerolineas Argentinas, Argentina's carrier. Privatized during the Menem regime in 1991, the company slid rapidly into bankruptcy. De la Rúa also surprised Western Hemisphere watchers by shifting toward a closer alliance with Brazil and Mexico, more dependence on Europe, and less reliance on the United States. He rescinded the policy of supporting the United Nations' peacekeeping forces by refusing to call up Argentina soldiers to combat international crises. Later in 2000 he made a state visit to China's President Jiang Zemin, who reciprocated in April of 2001 to discuss economic, trade, scientific, and technological issues.

Despite de la Rúa's efforts, the economy remained a stubborn obstacle to Argentine progress. On May 31, 2000, 20,000 took to the streets to protest spending cuts. In November of 2000 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) proposed measures to ease edgy financial markets and to halt the ripples of monetary crisis threatening to engulf South America. In a televised speech, to placate fearful international investors, de la Rúa put up a brave front of economic control. The IMF pledged billions to shore up Argentina's failing finances. De la Rúa called in provincial governors and political advisors to study ways to privatize the nation's social security system, reduce the number of civil servants, restructure public health, and rein in tax cheats, who owed a total of $25 billion to public coffers.

De la Rúa's downfall paralleled that of Raul Alfonsin, who had fled the presidency in the wake of looting and mob violence in 1989. On December 13, 2001, a one-day general strike demonstrated a pervasive disgruntlement bordering on national outrage. With the economy shrinking annually at the rate of 11 percent and unemployment approaching 20 percent, critics had had enough of the new president. To circumvent a run on banks, the government limited depositors' withdrawal of cash, generating a shortfall in retail sales. To earn the sympathies of the IMF, De la Rúa and economy minister Domingo Cavallo tried to impose wage cuts and a spartan budget. Without loans to bulk up the treasury against defaulting on $143 billion in foreign debt, the Argentine economy approached collapse. Facing the Perónists, de la Rúa risked his backers' disapproval by conferring with former president Menem while juggling various plans of lowering university staff salaries, confiscating private pensions, delaying state pension checks, dollarizing currency, and restructuring foreign debt.

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