Promising to "reconstruct our identity as a people and a nation" after the worst economic crisis in Argentina's history, Nestor Kirchner was sworn in as the country's president on Sunday. He immediately issued strong challenges to foreign creditors, the armed forces and the political establishment, which has opposed his unexpected rise to power.
In a 50-minute inauguration speech, Kirchner, who for the past dozen years has been the governor of a remote and sparsely populated province in Patagonia, took a markedly nationalist tone. He made clear his disagreement with the IMF's recipe for an economic recovery here and also demanded that the amount, interest rates and repayment schedule of the country's foreign debt be significantly eased.
"It is not possible to return to paying the debt at the cost of the hunger and exclusion of Argentines, generating more poverty and social conflict," he said, drawing thunderous applause. "Creditors have to understand that they can only collect if Argentina is doing well."
Sunday would have been a holiday here even without the pomp of the swearing-in ceremony because it is the 193rd anniversary of the beginning of Argentina's struggle to break free of Spanish rule. Kirchner became the 49th person to be president of the country in that time, the first from Patagonia, and the sixth during the extraordinary period of economic collapse and political instability that Argentina has lived through in the past 18 months.
Kirchner, a 53-year-old Peronist, is himself coming to power in highly unusual circumstances. He finished second in the initial round of the presidential election on April 27, with just 22 percent of the vote. But he won the runoff by default when his opponent, former president Carlos Saul Menem, withdrew rather than suffer what polls predicted would be a crushing defeat.
Without mentioning Menem by name, Kirchner strongly criticized the man who governed this country in the 1990s.
"Governability cannot be a synonym for impunity, obscure agreements, the manipulation of political institutions, or spurious pacts behind the back of society," he said.
Kirchner also called on the military to show a "commitment to the future and not the past." His declaration came after his newly appointed defense minister confirmed local news reports that three-quarters of army generals and more than half the air force and navy command, more than 50 generals and admirals overall, are being forced into early retirement.
To lead the army, Kirchner has chosen General Roberto Bendini, who has held the rank of general for less than 18 months and most recently commanded an armored unit in Kirchner's home province of Santa Cruz. The new heads of the air force and navy have also served recently in Patagonia and are relatively junior and inexperienced officers.
In an interview published Sunday by the daily Clarin, the new defense minister, Jose Pampuro, denied that a purge of the military was under way. The new president, he said, simply wants "to generate a new space as he has done in politics," and in order to do that, the military must be "under the direction of men who are competent and who have his confidence."
Kirchner has also indicated he would not oppose efforts to impeach the entire Supreme Court, which was appointed by and is considered still loyal to Menem. That has led to speculation that he favors a new court that might overturn the amnesty granted more than a decade ago to military officers who committed human rights abuses during the 1976-1983 domestic "dirty war."