The Mysterious Mr. K

Jorge Lanata

Where on a person’s face would you find their soul? If this story were to take place in the northern Italian city of Verona, the answer would be simple: for it was in the birthplace of Romeo and Juliet that the doctor Cesare Lombroso created what he called “positivist criminology.”

Lombroso believed in such things as the face of a murderer, the brow of a thief, the chin of a conman. The soul, he thought, determines a person’s face; each of us, then, has the face we deserve. But this story takes place in the south, and worse yet, in the south of the south: the Patagonia, where there is a litany of land, the horizon never ends, and the winds are so strong that they sometimes even manage to erase the past.


Mr. K

This is the story of an Argentine president with the name of a German painter. He has a wandering eye, a lisp, is ungraceful and of considerable height with a decent potbelly. He’s obsessive, solitary, and has a permanent thirst for power. No one ventures to tell the emperor he wears no clothes and, instead, a curious anthem has been composed in honor of his wandering eye. José Pablo Feinmann (screenwriter, essayist, and a sometimes-lucid intellectual) once explained this short-circuit in the presidential gaze: “Kirchner sees the ‘everything’ through one eye, while the other sees the ‘side.’ For politicians, the ‘everything’ is the state apparatus, which they often confuse with power. But none of them, except for Kirchner, sees to the ‘side,’ which is the masses… His eye was the only one that took notice.”

Néstor Kirchner assumed power with the least amount of votes of almost any Argentine president: 22.3% in the 2003 elections. In less than three years—either through pressure or with money—he managed to co-opt nearly the entire opposition, he convinced the public he was leading a “progressive” project, and laid the foundations for a planned K dynasty. But few observers know where he’s been, what he’s done, where he came from, and, above all, if—as Goethe once said—he’ll be what he’s been.

*

The writer Osvaldo Bayer, author of La Patagonia rebelde in which he investigates the slaughter of striking workers in 1921, found some pamphlets signed by the Río Gallegos Workers’ Association calling for a boycott against Carlos Kirchner, the president’s grandfather, a well-known loan shark in the southern province of Santa Cruz. In the pamphlet, they refer to him as “a drone living off the work of others.”

“He once borrowed 10 thousand pesos from my father, Kaspar, something like 30 thousand of today’s dollars. He never paid him back,” Bayer told the local Noticias newspaper.

Bayer also remembers another Kirchner. This one was photographed with the soldiers that killed the rebellious strikers. It was a period in which business owners of Santa Cruz financed an armed vigilante force known as the “White Guard” that exterminated unruly peons, just as they had liquidated the local Tehuelche Indians.

The father of Néstor K was employed by the Postal System, where he reached the post of Treasurer and Néstor K was born February 25, 1950, in Río Gallegos, then a town of no more than six thousand inhabitants. (“K” is the nickname used by journalists and the public when referring to the president. “K” like a character from Kafka or Brecht, Mr. K, heavy, abstract, mysterious.)

Despite his best efforts, K could not pass unnoticed: he was the tallest of his class; and a convulsive cough provoked the veering of his eye, and he was born with a perforated palate that caused difficulty in his diction, forcing a guttural pronunciation of Ss and Zs. His schoolmates, of course, were cruel. His performance in school was low, failing six courses as a sophomore and eight as a junior. In 1966, he tried to enter a teaching school, but his speech impediment prevented his admission. He went back to finish high school and graduated two months before celebrating his 19th birthday. Back in those days he wasn’t called “K,” but rather “Lupo” or “Lupín” after a character from a comic strip, an airplane pilot with whom he bore a striking resemblance. He liked his nickname. After all, flying had a heroic ring. And in Italian (did he know it then?) “Lupo” means wolf.

In March of 1969, he traveled 2,600 kilometers to study in Buenos Aires province and entered the law school of the University of La Plata. It took him seven years to graduate, and he did so with a grade point average just barely above the bare minimum. His college friends remember two things about him: his passion for money and his sleepwalking habits.

“What hasn’t changed is his mania for dollars,” remembers a friend that asked not to be identified. “His family would wire money to La Plata, and Lupo would run out to buy dollars. In those days, people weren’t too concerned about exchange rates, but he was. Every so often he’d count them and calculate his winnings according to the exchange rates published by the newspapers.”

One night, his roommate awoke startled. “Suddenly, the hoarse voice of someone screaming woke me up. When I opened my eyes, I realized the screaming was from inside the room: it was el Flaco (Kirchner) imitating Perón, using a broom like a microphone. I told him to stop busting my balls, and, ignoring me, he just kept on with his speech. I finally turned on the light and there he was totally asleep, making the same gestures as Perón with the broom in his hand. Lupín was a sleepwalker and I didn’t know it.”


Néstor with the newly elected President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the country's first elected female head of state.

From La Plata, Kirchner left with some political experience and with the woman he would share his life with: Cristina Fernández, who detests being called “First Lady” by the media, preferring instead “First Citizen.” In those years Kirchner was an activist with ties to the Peronist Youth Movement, but—contrary to a myth that persists to this day—never formed part of the Revolutionary Tendency, which was the public face of the guerrilla underground, or the Montoneros, an urban guerrilla group. Cristina called him “Kirchner” and still does, even intimately. She managed to get him to match colors and tried exposing him to music and film, which Néstor literally ignored entirely. They left La Plata for Río Gallegos on July 27, 1976. Their idea of realpolitik is summarized by a phrase that would determine their future together:

“To make politics, you first have to make money.”

*

In February 1977, Néstor K received notification that he was supposed to present himself at the 24th Infantry Regiment. He was interrogated, along with his colleague Rafael Flores by colonel Calloni, the area boss and top representative of the military dictatorship in Santa Cruz. “The guy was friendly and affectionate,” remembers Flores. “His questions always addressed us as ‘doctor’ and Calloni himself did the questioning without any handcuffs or hoods. He asked us about the events of May 25, 1973, and if we had seen any Montoneros.” After both confirmed their presence at the event, Calloni apologized for not being able to detain them at the barracks since these were full and told them they would stay in the Block 15 of the Federal Penitentiary. Three days later, they were released. K remembers those events as a “living hell.”

Cristina graduated law school in 1979 and K specialized in consulting local businesses on the “payment and recuperation” of unpaid debts. He worked for the Automotores de Dios car company, the Opinión Austral newspaper, the LU12 radio station, Berton appliances, and the Finsud financial company. Local families despised him for repossessing such things as televisions, pianos, or bicycles. Olaf Pilín Asset watched how Néstor K once took the family television. Asset later became an activist working in left-wing organizations in which he referred to his colleague as a “mafioso.” Today, he’s the president’s personal attorney and holds a post in the provincial government.

With the dictatorship’s growing financial debacle led by economy minister Martínez de Hoz, K found himself consulting Finsud, buying mortgage debt and making offers on foreclosures. At the height of the dictatorship and in just five years, between 1977 and 1982, the K couple managed to multiply their fortune and bought a total of 21 properties: one in ’77, five in ’78, four in ’79, three in ’80, five in ’81 and three in ’82, according to tax filings.

In 1980, an anonymous debt-holder tried taking justice into his own hands and threw a Molotov cocktail into the law offices of the Ks. After the attack, Cristina, Néstor, and their then-associate Domingo Ortiz de Zárate published an ad in the local press thanking the military authorities for their solidarity and “leaving the investigation in the hands of the appropriate judicial authorities, as it should be under the rule of law by the state.”


ESMA, converted by K into a museum of memory, was the largest clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires.

Two years later on the front page of Opinión Austral and in the inside pages of Correo del Sur, just a few days after the Galtieri dictatorship started the war with Britain over the Malvinas Islands, the military published a piece thanking “the support shown by representatives of different sectors of the Río Gallegos citizenry at the Command headquarters.” The photo shows the top military commander of Santa Cruz with Nélida Cremona, who hails from the orthodox right-wing of Peronism and is the president’s political godmother; Manuel López Lestón, who is K’s uncle and an ex-functionary of the Lanusse dictatorship (1971-1973); Daniel Varizat, a friend of K and current minister of government for Santa Cruz; and, finally, the lawyer Néstor Kirchner, who “was driving discussions between military and civilians wings of the dictatorship.” Nowadays, when the president hugs the Mothers or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or orders military portraits to be taken down from the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), which was used as a concentration camp, one wonders at what moment he began his conversion.

One possible answer might be found by delving into the Argentine “theory of the imaginary enemy,” which we’ll reconsider later on. But, first, we left off at the height of the dictatorship with K and Cristina fattening up their bank account.

*

Democracy returned after the military defeat in the Malvinas. K then decides to return to Peronism, but does not join any of the “renovating” or progressive variants of the movement. Upon returning to Río Gallegos, Néstor K jumps on stage during a speech by presidential Peronist candidate Ítalo Luder (who would be defeated by Raúl Alfonsín) yelling, “Isabel in control! Everything else is treason!” Evoking the memory of Isabel Perón, who protected and endorsed the ultra right-wing terrorist group known as the Triple A led by José López Rega was curious and untimely. But Lupín and his friends refused to get off the stage until Luder included a salute to Isabel in his speech.

Néstor K went on to win the mayoralty of Río Gallegos by 111 votes on September 7, 1987. By the middle of his term Cristina was put on the list of candidates under Carlos Menem for the Justicialista Party (PJ) in 1989 and was elected to the provincial congress. Between 1991 and 1995 Néstor was elected provincial governor and Cristina re-elected to congress. Immediately after his inauguration, the governor suspended payments to public employees in December and a cut in wages.


Kirchner with then-President Carlos Menem (center).

His relations with the Menem government in Buenos Aires could not have been better. Menem built an airport in Calafate in gratitude and flew there to inaugurate it. At the ceremony Kirchner repeatedly praised the president, but today refers to his compliments as “protocol.” Néstor also led lobbying efforts for the privatization of the state oil company YPF, which was sold to the Spanish company Repsol, and Cristina helped modify the constitution to allow Menem’s re-election.

It was during those years that K became increasingly sensitive to criticisms from the press. He persecuted La Opinión Austral, helping to drive it out of business by withdrawing all government advertisements. At the same time, he created conditions for keeping media addicted to this state support. Rudy Ulloa, his chauffer, became the owner of a powerful multimedia outfit that still exists and recently acquired the Buenos Aires daily Página/12, which receives the second largest amount of state funds despite only having a print-run of 10,000 copies a day.

The following of Menem’s re-election example by provincial governors first took root in the south of the county. K reformed the provincial constitution and succeeded in getting approval for indefinite re-election. During his third term, he discretely transferred $500 million in province funds to foreign bank accounts. “In order to keep it protected from a country that’s coming apart,” he said at the time. The famous “Santa Cruz Funds,” he then promised, would be repatriated when he became president. Three years into his term, under public pressure, the government argued it would gradually repatriate the funds and provided some bank deposit stubs from accounts in Switzerland and other fiscal paradises under his own name.

Nobody knows for sure if the funds returned or not, just as there is no certainty how much interest the funds accumulated over the years. What is known is that the funds were managed, at least in part, by the financial firm Open Market, which was fined by the U.S. Justice Department for managing money of Mexico’s Juárez Cartel.

*

He wakes up at six in the morning, eats breakfast, listens to the radio, and calls early morning cabinet meetings. He loves waking up his ministers to demand something. It’s no wonder the majority of his cabinet has divorced during his term.


K with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group that seeks information on their disappeared children.

He arrives at the government palace (Casa Rosada) at about nine in the morning—even though he insists that his ministers arrive at seven—and at two in the afternoon he rides the government helicopter to take his siesta at the Olivos presidential residency. He returns to the Casa Rosada at five and stays in his office until 11 p.m. He watches soccer at the Olivos mini-cinema, but only Racing, his favorite team, and no longer goes to the stadium. He does not read fiction, but reads economic papers every so often, and is a voracious reader of the new wires that arrive to his office every 15 minutes.

He does not drink alcohol and always keeps the same diet: a chicken breast with mash potatoes or with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes. Or sometimes he’ll eat fish with mash potatoes or with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes. He only drinks mineral water. He suffers from hemorrhagic gastroenteritis with serious deviations of the colon that the government tries to keep under wraps.

He struggles with technology. His daughter Florencia, adolescent and author of a blog, has taught Néstor K and Cristina the little they know about computers. He prefers to write things down in a little school notebook, jotting down stats on the economy. He spent his first two years registering fiscal reserves and tax collection estimates; now he keeps careful notes on inflation indices.

The only thing that seems to entertain him is power, which he pursues with meticulous dedication and the cruelty of a child. He did not win the 2003 election against Menem. Instead, his rival dropped out of the race, refusing to take part in the second round. This detail influenced his efforts in the subsequent years, during which he tried to build his leadership and his base at any price. Thus, a New K was born; a contradictory one that bore little resemblance to the one that governed his province.

He purged the military leadership, re-vindicated the human rights movement, changed the composition of the Supreme Court, and launched a confrontational policy that persists to this day. Mr. K fights with the Church, the military, the countryside, the supermarkets, the press, the UN, credit organizations, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, the privatized companies—and in recent months—against real inflation figures, which the government decided to hide beneath implausibly rosy statistics.

*

But are these fights boxing matches or are they professional wrestling? Does he actually land blows or is it simulated? K fights, for instance, against La Nación newspaper. He blames it for having supported the military, accuses it of fomenting repression against popular protests, and harasses it to the point of denouncing its columnists by name in speeches.

An initial, cursory read would indicate that K fights progressive battles against the vernacular right. This could not be further from the truth. K makes pacts with the true right, the one he disputes real power with, on a daily basis—with the oil companies, the monopolistic construction companies, and subsidized transportationists.


Kirchner speaking in Gualeguaychú, where activists are trying to block the operation of a pulp mill across the river in Uruguay.

He punishes the symbolic right in order to pact with the real right. Mr. K creates imaginary enemies; nothing is simpler than fighting straw men. He fiercely criticizes Menemism from the 1990s, while making agreements with all of Menemism's leaders—except of course with Menem himself—for the October 28 elections.

“I’m not afraid of you,” K says to members of the Army at a military college. Thirty years after the dictatorship, who’s afraid of the Argentine military? Only a pathetic group of freaks defends the military, which tortured, assassinated and stole children during those years of violence.

With enemies such as these, Mr. K can rest easy. Except, it seems one thing for him has indeed gone unnoticed: the worst enemy of a double discourse is time. Time inevitably passes; the veils of the dialectic are shed and real life pounces on us like a cat.

“I’m a Peronist,” he told George W. Bush at the White House in July 2003

“Don’t mix yourself up… Look, it’s been a long time since I left Peronism,” K told journalist Walter Curia from the Clarín newspaper when Curia commented that his upcoming book on the president is titled The Last Peronist.

Both quotes are true. The Law of Identity affirms that A is equal to B, and that both are equal to K.

Yesterday, his dream of passing on the presidency to his wife has come true, but few expect his retirement. Instead, in the worst of cases, he will be governing from the shadows. If this does happen, he can come back to run again after Cristina’s presidency ends in 2011. But this story takes place in Argentina, in the south of the south, where almost nothing is certain.


Jorge Lanata is one of Argentina’s most famous journalists. The author of several books, he was the founder of Página/12 and is now starting a new newspaper. Luciana Geuna helped investigate this article, which was originally published in the June 2007 issue (No. 80) of Gatopardo magazine. Translated by Teo Ballvé and reprinted with permission.

All photos (except Menem photo) printed under Creative Commons license 2.0 by presidencia.gov.ar.

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