NESTOR KIRCHNER'S CALLOUS HANDLING OF THE BUENOS AIRES DISCO INFERNO HAS TRIGGERED THE WORST CRISIS OF HIS PRESIDENCY

The firecracker that ignited the ceiling of the Republica Cromagnon music club on Dec. 30 has also triggered the worst crisis of Nestor Kirchner's 20-month-old presidency. As anxious parents scoured city hospitals and morgues in search of their missing children, Kirchner hunkered down in the remote southern province of Santa Cruz, where he had traveled for an end-of-year holiday only hours before the deadly blaze erupted. The Argentine leader has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings since taking office in May 2003, but Kirchner had been criticized in recent weeks for a perplexing penchant for snubbing fellow chiefs of state and visiting foreign dignitaries. And instead of rushing to the bedside of the hundreds of hospitalized victims in Buenos Aires, the enigmatic president remained on vacation and said nothing during the first 72 hours after the conflagration. His aides, meanwhile, pointed a finger of blame at municipal officials in the Argentine capital.

That damage control strategy has backfired for the 54-year-old president. Angry protesters marched through the streets of Buenos Aires on Monday to demand the resignation of Anibal Ibarra, the city's embattled mayor and a close ally of the president. Among the graffiti they left behind on downtown sidewalks was a pointed question: KIRCHNER, WHERE ARE YOU? Spain's prestigious Madrid daily El Pais published a sharply worded editorial condemning the president's inexplicable absence at a time of national mourning. And when Kirchner finally ended his self-imposed silence, he only managed to compound the error of his ways. "The tragedy," declared the president in a self-serving interview with the government-owned news agency Telam, "was too great and terrible to add any histrionic statements or gestures."

In the end, Kirchner bowed to the inevitable and flew back to Buenos Aires a day early for a hastily arranged meeting with 100 grieving relatives of the dead. But the damage has been done, and not just to the image and credibility of the Argentine president. As a steady stream of news stories revealed how both the nightclub owner and city officials failed to adhere to safety regulations that might have allowed more revelers to escape the fire unharmed, a wave of popular anger gripped some Argentines that seemed aimed at politicians of all ideological hues. When a small group of left-wing militants showed up for the march on the Buenos Aires city hall Monday evening, many of the demonstrators demanded they leave at once. When some in the crowd recognized a small businessman who rose to national prominence last year after his son was kidnapped and murdered, a hail of insults and spit drove the man to seek refuge in a nearby hotel.

The last time Argentina witnessed such a spontaneous outpouring of grass-roots fury and discontent was in December 2001, and then President Fernando de la Rua was forced to leave office with two years still left in his term. That won't happen to Nestor Kirchner on this occasion. The Argentine economy posted its second consecutive year of robust growth in 2004, and the president's Peronist party is poised to sweep key midterm congressional elections scheduled for next October. But Kirchner's callous handling of the disco tragedy has left him a diminished figure in the eyes of even his staunchest supporters, and the same president who was nicknamed the penguin on account of his Patagonian origins was being likened to an ostrich as the new year dawned. One of the bereaved relatives who was received by Kirchner upon his belated return to Buenos Aires asked the president at one point how could they continue to put their trust in him. "I'm a regular guy who happened to become president," Kirchner replied. "Don't trust anybody except yourselves." Millions of disenchanted Argentines reached that conclusion a long time ago.

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