de la Rúa, Fernando: 1937
Fernando de la Rúa: 1937—: Politician, lawyer
The former president of Argentina, Fernando de la Rúa attempted to restore solvency to a nation deep in debt and out of patience with governmental corruption, rampant inflation, and unemployment. Elected late in 1999 by South America's second largest nation, de la Rúa, Argentina's 47th president, applied the negotiation skills he perfected as an attorney, senator, and mayor of Buenos Aires. For a few tranquil months, he appeared to outclass his predecessor, Carlos Menem, in integrity and direction. The return of scandal and disruption to the cabinet and Senate forced de la Rúa to resign.
Joined Union Civica Radical
A native of Cordoba, de la Rúa was born on September 15, 1937, and studied law at the University of Cordoba. After joining the Union Civica Radical (UCR), Argentina's most traditional party at age 26, he took an advisory post in the Ministry of the Interior as one of the youngest members of Dr. Artier Illia's radical government. Later in 1973 he campaigned unsuccessfully for vice president as the running mate of Ricardo Balbín. In 1983 de la Rúa won election to the Senate from the city of Buenos Aires during the presidency of Juan Perón and survived an era of political chaos that threatened civil war.
De la Rúa came of age politically during the downfall of the Peróns. When Juan Perón died, his wife Isabel —then vice president—supplanted him and became president. She managed to suppress uprisings with a hard-handed right-wing backlash. On March 24, 1976, when a military coup ended her presidency, death squads began engineering the disappearance of thousands of citizens. In the upheaval, de la Rúa lost his senate post. He took his family to safety outside Argentina and, for seven years, taught at universities in Mexico, the United States, and Venezuela.
De la Rúa returned from self-imposed exile in 1983. Late in the decade, at a time when Argentina agonized under a military junta and weathered defeat by Britain in the Falkland Islands war, the mild-mannered attorney campaigned for the presidency. He lost to flamboyant Carlos Saul Menem, a Perónist Party strongman who took office in 1989. De la Rúa was elected to the senate, where he served for six years. In 1996 he was elected mayor of Buenos Aires, one of the largest urban centers in the Southern Hemisphere. In three years of office, he distinguished himself by expanding the subway, improving street lighting and garbage collection through privatization, and netting a budget surplus.
At a Glance . . .
Born Fernando de la Rúa on September 15, 1937, in Cordoba, Argentina; married Inés Pertiné; three children. Education: law degree from the University of Cordoba. Politics: Union Civica Radical Party.
Career: Ministry of Interior, Argentina, adviser, 1963-66; senator, 1973-76; university professor, 1976-83; senator, 1983-89; mayor, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1996-99; president of Argentina, 1999-01.
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.
De la Rúa's last days in office were a desperate avoidance of the inevitable. He replaced departing finance secretary Daniel Marx with Miguel Kiguel, but could not deny the seriousness of the October 6th resignation of Vice President Carlos "Chacho" Alvarez, who declared his boss incapable or unwilling to punish senators caught in a bribery scandal. Promotion of scandal-soiled Labor Minister Alberto Flamarique to chief of staff increased rumors of mismanagement and coverup and fears that de la Rúa's rickety coalition would crumble. Flamarique lasted only a day before quitting. President of the Senate Jose Genoud followed within the week, leaving Chief of Intelligence Fernando Santibanez clinging to his post.
A bizarre turn of events ended de la Rúa's chances of restoring public confidence. In mid-December, Ernesto Belli, member of Daughters and Sons for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence (HIJOS), grabbed President de la Rúa on camera during the popular TV show Video Match to dramatize the hopelessness of La Tablada prisoners who dwindled from a fourteen-week hunger strike. As a result de la Rúa reduced life sentences for 71 inmates. The president's public humiliation worsened as a two-week state of siege gripped the nation. Pensioners saw their savings and retirement funds rifled, their real estate devalued.
De la Rúa's approval ratings plummeted 40 points to 30 percent.
Amid mounting chaos that caused hundreds of injuries and 30 deaths, the de la Rúa presidency had little hope of survival. On December 20th, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo led the rest of the cabinet in tendering letters of resignation. Hours later, de la Rúa abandoned his office. The admitted failures left some 18.3 percent of Argentines unemployed, homelessness mounting, state companies up for sale, and a treasury facing $132 billion in foreign debt. Replacing de la Rúa was Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, the interim president until Argentines went to the polls in March of 2002.
The Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
Airline Industry Information, June 22, 2000. Business Week, November 8, 1999; October 30, 2000.
Economist (US), December 22, 2001.
Forbes, February 18, 2002.
Maclean's, December 31, 2001.
NACLA Report on the Americas, January 2000; January 2001.
U. S. News & World Report, February 28, 2000.
Washington Post, October 27, 1999; October 11, 2000; November 11, 2000; December 22, 2001; January 6, 2002.
World Press Review, January 2000.
Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2000.
—Mary Ellen Snodgrass
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