LIMA, Peru — Nestor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina and husband of the current president, died today from a heart attack, according to state television and radio.
The 60-year-old leader was credited with helping bring Argentina back from economic ruin, earning him unrivaled popular support. He was widely expected to run for a second term in 2011, and a victory would have cemented the so-called “Kirchner dynasty.”
He had been plagued with heart problems and underwent two cardiovascular surgeries this year, including one in September. Kirchner’s doctors warned him to avoid stress, but he continued working anyway, according to colleagues in Congress.
He died in his home in the southern city of Calafate, local media reported.
The streets of Buenos Aires are eerily quiet today, with most businesses closed for a national holiday and Argentines glued to their television sets and radios for details.
"The city is dead," said Chance Miller, an American living in Buenos Aires. "We're supposed to stay in our homes until the census taker comes by."
Mariana Passo, 31, was one of those waiting at home. "I'm more concerned right now about what the president will do," she said, "because he was the brain behind her administration."
Kirchner came to presidency after governing in Patagonia for more than a decade. Kirchner’s style — referred to by his followers as “the K-style” — included fiery leftists speeches and what many describe as bullied politicking.
He took office in 2003, following a deep recession and an economic collapse in 2001. The peso was devalued, savings accounts disappeared and Argentina defaulted on more than $100 billion.
The Peronist government responded by stimulating internal consumption, rather than immediately catering to creditors or the International Monetary Fund — an unorthodox approach that garnered skepticism from free-market economists.
But the economy grew by 8 percent or more each year Kircher was in office, and at one point his approval rating approached 80 percent.
Rather than seeking a second term, Kircher stepped aside and instead supported his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was then a senator. The move was thought to be a maneuver to let the couple run the country for a dozen years or more.
She has struggled through a rough first term, facing a battle with farmers over taxes on agricultural exports, capital flight from the country and sky-rocketing inflation.
The Peronist party, under the Kirchners' leadership, lost its majority in Congress last year, but their popularity has appeared to rebound with the Argentine economy growing at its fastest pace since 1992.
Cristina’s monetary and political strategies are widely believed to have been setting the stage for Nestor’s re-election bid in 2011. Kirchner was leader of the Peronist party in Congress and his death has many Argentines speculating about the future of the party.
Kirchner was born Feb. 25, 1950, in the Patagonian City of Rio Gallegos, and he was known as “The Penguin,” because of both his Patagonian roots and prominent nose.
In the next few hours, Kirchner’s body will be flown from Patagonia to the capital of Buenos Aires. Crowds are starting to gather in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Casa Rosada, to mourn his passing. Others mourners are posting direct messages to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s Twitter account (@CFKArgentina).
Thursday will likely be declared a day of national mourning and a funeral will be held in the plaza in front of the Congress building.