BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentine President Cristina Fernandez rallied a huge crowd Saturday night celebrating the 10-year government that she and her late husband Nestor Kirchner began in 2003. Her voice breaking, she called it a victorious decade, "won not by a government but by the people."
This year's election will determine whether Fernandez has enough votes in congress to undo constitutional term limits and extend her rule beyond 2015. But she suggested Saturday night that she won't try. She said "I'm not eternal, nor do I want to be."
Putting human rights violators on trial and pushing to put more of Argentina's wealth in the hands of its poorest people will continue to be the pillars of this government, she said. "Equality is the grand symbol of this decade and of those to come," she vowed.
Her opponents took aim at the "decade won" theme, noting that the years of strong economic growth have ended, and saying that if this is what victory looks like, Argentina is in big trouble.
Whether the Kirchners' decade will be remembered for its historic achievements or its missed opportunities depends on whom you talk with in Argentina, where society is bitterly divided over their legacy.
Analysts consulted by The Associated Press said they deserve credit for fostering 7 percent average growth and restoring power to the presidency. Kirchner was inaugurated on May 25, 2003 at a chaotic time; the country was still suffering from its 2001 crisis, and poverty was extreme.
The Kirchners began an era of social inclusion, external debt reduction and state intervention that was the exact opposite of the privatization binge and anything-goes capitalism that characterized Argentina in the 1990s.
Ten years later and going it alone after her husband died of a heart attack, Fernandez has intensified her government's control over the economy and diverted billions of dollars more to subsidizing the poor.
"This is an extraordinarily significant decade in Argentine history," said philosopher Ricardo Forster, a supporter. The transformations have managed to enrich the social, cultural, political and economic life."
But Fernandez's approval ratings have dropped sharply recently amid rising inflation and crime, corruption allegations involving top appointees and allied businessmen; increasingly heavy-handed economic controls; and efforts to transform the justice system. Critics say the real goal is eliminating challengers to presidential power.
"This decade represents a tremendous missed opportunity, which you can see by looking at what other countries in the region have done with similar possibilities and limitations," said sociologist and attorney Roberto Gargarella, a government critic.
Thousands of citizens have joined a series of pot-banging protests in recent months, and the crowd gathering in the Plaza de Mayo to hear Fernandez speak Saturday night was intended to provide a powerful counterpoint. Hundreds of thousands of people were bused in by the "organized and united" network of pro-government groups, and their flags and huge TV screens were installed in nearby streets.
"This is the government I always dreamed of and fought for in the 1970s," said Paloma Perez Galdos, a 58-year-old bank worker. "It's time that we have a justice system for everyone, not just for the rich."
"Social inclusion" under the Kirchners has involved providing billions of dollars in cash welfare payments families with children and people working in the informal economy. The government has raised pensions and minimum wages, and directed vast amounts of government revenue to keep the economy moving.
"Unemployment has gone from 25 percent to 7 percent ten years later ... in an economy that grew as fast as China," said Ramiro Castineira, an economic analyst with the Econometrica firm.
Castineira and Gargarella disagree on many aspects of the Kirchners' legacy, but they both say intervening in the government statistics service in 2007 was a critical mistake. Ever since, official annual inflation has refused to budge over 10 percent, even as Argentine shoppers watch prices double and triple each year. Many other statistics based on consumer prices have become widely disregarded.
"All the numbers on unemployment, poverty, inflation and inequality are falsified," Gargarella said.
"Misrepresenting the numbers was a strong blow to market confidence; that raised the country risk and made it impossible for Argentina to take on foreign debt. That's why the government turned to expanding the money supply," Castineira agreed.
Since 2008, the government has sought to capture more of the windfall profits from soy exports. But that alone couldn't finance the spending, so it printed more money and changed currency and tax rules forcing businesses to keep profits inside Argentina. That dissuaded investors, spurred capital flight and pushed annual inflation to as much 30 percent right now, private analysts say.
Economic instability now threatens to undo much of what the Kirchners accomplished.
"Today it's clear that Argentina, under the leadership of the Kirchners, has not known how to take advantage of the opportunity that this first decade of the 21st century has represented for Latin America, which is the strongest growth in two centuries of history," political analyst Rosendo Fraga said. "Instead of taking the path of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Uruguay, it's taking that of Venezuela."
Associated Press Writer Damian Pachter contributed to this story.