Obituaries

Fernando de la Rúa, ill-fated president of Argentina, 81

Former Argentine president Fernando de la Rua, center, who attracted voters with his image as an honest statesman and later left the country plunged into its worst economic crisis, died Tuesday. He was 81.
Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press/File/2013
Former Argentine president Fernando de la Rua, center, who attracted voters with his image as an honest statesman and later left the country plunged into its worst economic crisis, died Tuesday. He was 81.

BUENOS AIRES — Fernando de la Rúa, who resigned as president of Argentina after two years in 2001 amid one of the most spectacular economic collapses in modern history, died Tuesday at a hospital in Belén de Escobar, in Buenos Aires province. He was 81.

President Mauricio Macri announced the death on Twitter. Local news media reports said the cause was renal and heart failure.

A longtime public servant, Mr. De la Rúa will probably be remembered most for taking off in a helicopter from the terrace of the presidential palace on Dec. 20, 2001, halfway into his four-year term, moments after presenting his formal resignation.

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That departure became the symbol of a failed presidency. Mr. De la Rúa had been unable to cool down a social and economic crisis that engulfed the country, leading to violent street protests, a state of siege, and a crackdown by law enforcement that killed dozens.

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Mr. De la Rúa’s resignation ended his political career, and he spent his remaining years largely out of the limelight. In interviews, he characterized himself as a victim of domestic coup plotters and “harassment” from the International Monetary Fund. But he also acknowledged that he regretted leaving his post by helicopter.

“It turned out to be a mistake,” he told the Spanish newspaper El País in 2016, “just like in all the cases in which one allows a photograph to become a symbol.”

Mr. De la Rúa easily won the presidential election on Oct. 24, 1999, as part of a center-left coalition, the Alianza. He promised to end a decade of neoliberal policies under Carlos Menem that had been marked by corruption scandals and high unemployment. During the campaign, he acknowledged that he had a boring personality, but he maintained that it was an asset.

“I’m really a university professor more than a politician,” he said in an interview during the campaign. “I do serious things and I do them seriously.”

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Yet it did not take long for his presidency to begin unraveling. He became mired in his own corruption scandal, with his government accused of bribing senators to approve a controversial labor reform law. That scandal led to the resignation of his vice president, Carlos Álvarez, weakening the De la Rúa government.

Mr. De la Rúa also faced a growing economic crisis. A program he inherited that pegged the local currency to the US dollar became increasingly unsustainable, leading to a surge in the country’s fiscal deficit. His government eventually imposed limits on how much cash Argentines could withdraw from their accounts. The move helped spark mass protests.

The social unrest boiled over in December 2001. Supermarkets were looted and pot-banging protests became a common sight. In resigning, Mr. De la Rúa said he was hoping to “contribute to pacify the country.”

Argentina proceeded to fall deeper into crisis. The country had four presidents in two weeks and defaulted on almost $100 billion of debt.

Fernando de la Rúa was born in Córdoba, the capital of Córdoba province, on Sept. 15, 1937, to Antonio De la Rúa Catani, a lawyer, and Eleonora Felisa Bruno, a homemaker.

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He distinguished himself at the Liceo Militar General Paz, a military boarding school, and studied law at National University of Córdoba before obtaining a doctorate in law at University of Buenos Aires.

Mr. De la Rúa entered politics in Buenos Aires as a member of the centrist Unión Cívica Radical party, first as a legal adviser to the interior ministry during the presidency of Arturo Illia, then as a vice presidential candidate on a losing ticket with Ricardo Balbín in 1973.

He served three terms as a senator and one term as a lawmaker in the Chamber of Deputies, Argentina’s lower house of Congress, before becoming the first elected mayor of Buenos Aires in 1996. That post helped propel him to the presidency.

Mr. De la Rúa leaves his wife, Inés Pertiné, whom he married in 1970; their three children, Agustina De la Rúa, Antonio De la Rúa, and Fernando De la Rúa; and 11 grandchildren.

He lay in state in Congress before he was buried Wednesday. Macri declared three days of mourning.