The Country It Should Be

A noticeably leaner Nestor Kirchner granted a rare interview last month to NEWSWEEK's Joseph Contreras in Buenos Aires after he was hospitalized for six days for treatment of stomach bleeding. Excerpts:

CONTRERAS: Some opinion polls have registered a drop in your approval ratings for the first time since you took office. Is the political honeymoon over?

KIRCHNER: There never was a honeymoon. How could there have been a honeymoon when we had to take over the government within a month in a country that had exploded with so many unsatisfied demands? This isn't the most important thing for us. The important thing is to govern well.

Rising crime is a major concern for millions of Argentines. Could your political opponents use the issue against you?

Crime is a very difficult issue, which we are addressing with a strategic plan. The impoverishment of society generates a certain kind of crime, but there is also crime that arises from corruption in government institutions. We need to combat corruption and get rid of [crooked] police officials.

Argentina's private creditors have thus far rejected your proposal to pay 25 percent on the face value of $88 billion in government-issued bonds in their possession. Will you have to raise that figure to reach an agreement with those creditors?

We have told them with complete honesty that this is what we can manage. There are times when I imagine that Argentina is growing phenomenally well, consumer spending is rising, there is more employment and poverty is on the decline. But we are still saddled with all the burdens of the past--a country that owes the equivalent of 150 percent of its gross domestic product and has defaulted on a debt of $90 billion--and our backwardness is such that the level of our [debt] obligations doesn't square with the level of our resources.

So that 25 percent is your final offer?

We can't pay any more. If we spent practically all of the government's primary fiscal surplus on paying back the private creditors as well as the international financial institutions, there would be very little left for running the country.

Argentina is facing a serious energy shortage this year, and you have unilaterally reduced natural-gas exports to Chile over the loud objections of that country's government. Will there be power outages later this year?

I believe there won't be. But there has been a process of disinvestment by the privatized [energy] companies that should have been investing since 1996. Some of these companies have made very big profits, but they nevertheless failed to make the investments that the country required in light of its needs.

Are you willing to sit down with anti-Castro dissidents when you visit Cuba as the president of Argentina?

If they ask to see me, obviously I shall speak with them. When I was in Venezuela with President Chavez, with whom I have excellent relations, I met with the opposition. When Fidel Castro was here [last year], he met with all the opposition elements, and I thought that was great. That's part of what democracy is all about.

What's been your biggest disappointment since you took office?

I always knew that Argentina was in a very difficult situation, and when I took office it turned out to be even worse than I imagined. To see this kind of poverty in a country with the potential that Argentina has is terribly painful. But I'm not one who gets mired in disappointment. I try to take a balanced view, because some days things turn out the way one had hoped, and other days they don't. Argentina is growing very strongly, and if we can consolidate this growth it will become the country that it should be.