Among all Argentine political leaders, the late Senator Carlos Alberto ‘Lole’ Reutemann had one highly subjective claim to be unique – his was the only name outside members of the Perón family which was at all familiar to me prior to my arrival in Argentina in 1982 (of all years). Not that I followed his pre-1982 career at all closely with motor-racing way down my list of favourite sports, but I could not help hearing his name just as today even the most ardent sports-hater cannot honestly say that they do not know who a Michael Jordan or a Roger Federer is.
As a Grand Prix racing-driver Reutemann already had a reputation as an also-ran (“dueño del segundo puesto” in the Spanish, which was slightly unfair since he actually won 12 races while occupying the podium further down 45 times), presaging his political career somewhat. Although never losing an election, whether for governor (1991 and 1999) or senator (1995, 2003, 2009 and 2015), all in his native province of Santa Fe, the abiding memory of his political career will always be ducking a presidential run in 2003, thus effectively bequeathing Kirchnerism to this country.
Almost two decades later Kirchnerism seems so inextricably woven into the political fabric that it is easy to forget just how accidental its advent was. In the second half of 2002 the main obsession of then-caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde was how to stop his ex-ally and bitter foe Carlos Menem from returning to the presidency in the upcoming elections (which he had been forced to accelerate due to the Avellaneda picket deaths in midyear so that he was in a hurry). The best bet for that seemed outgoing Santa Fe Governor Reutemann, still highly popular after two terms not only in his native province but with nationwide approval ratings of around 40 percent. But the racing ace averaging 300 kilometres per hour a quarter-century previously dithered inexplicably for weeks. In despair Duhalde then turned to the other major governor (having absorbed Carlos Ruckauf of Buenos Aires Province into his Cabinet) – Córdoba‘s José Manuel de la Sota (another might-have-been of Argentine history), who proved a non-starter with opinion poll ratings stuck in the lower single digits. Back to Reutemann for more agonising before reluctantly settling on the only governor with his hat in the ring – Néstor Kirchner of Santa Cruz (then with high single digits in the opinion polls). And the rest is history, as they say.
So no Marxist determinism underlying the rise of Kirchnerism – the 2003 election was a coin in the air with one accidental president (Duhalde) leading to another. It could have been Reutemann or Menem or Kirchner or De la Sota or ex-president and former San Luis governor Adolfo Rodríguez Saá (who polled over 14 percent in the election, ahead of Elisa Carrió) or even Duhalde staying on by default. All roads seemingly led not to Rome but to the Alps with a wheel commencing with a presidential prospect of Swiss origin (Reutemann) turning full circle to end up in another Peronist leader of Swiss origin (Kirchner).
The taciturn Reutemann never really explained this political nonfeasance. At times he presented Duhalde as somebody who could not take no for an answer, claiming to have turned him down 41 times. But he is mostly remembered for explaining his indecision from “seeing something he did not like” – a phrase both reflecting the “begone with them all” distaste for sordid politics of those times but also disqualifying him for the kitchen if he could not stand the heat.
An enigma typical of this simple and straightforward man who was nevertheless a walking paradox – a speedy González of the racetrack who treasured rural calm and was excruciatingly slow of speech and decision-making.
Appending a thumbnail biography to this column, Carlos Alberto Reutemann was born in the provincial capital of Santa Fe on April 12, 1942. As stated above, the family was of Swiss origin from the canton of Zurich – Teutonic surnames are generally assumed to be German in origin, not surprisingly (with suspicions of being escaped Nazi war criminals sometimes surfacing), but in fact the Swiss might well outnumber the Germans here at least. He was educated at the provincial capital’s Jesuit college where a veteran Buenos Aires Herald proof-reader was a classmate of his – thanks to him, I learned at a very early stage the origins of his nickname Lole, bestowed at that college from his habit of referring to the suckling pigs on the family farm as “lolechone” instead of “los lechones,” dropping the letter “s” in the provincial style.
Our Herald colleague was extremely unimpressed by his classmate’s brainpower and indeed Reutemann failed to establish himself in any career for half a decade after leaving school until he started finding his place in the world inside a racing-car cockpit as from 1965. By 1972 his talents there had landed him a contract with Brabham and a stellar decade followed, also including Ferrari, Lotus and Williams.
His retirement from Grand Prix racing in 1982 was followed by several years mostly on the farm interspersed with sporadic car rallies but in 1991 Menem was on the hunt for glamorous names as candidates to parachute into key provinces – a hunt which was to see Reutemann installed in Santa Fe and the singer Ramón ‘Palito’ Ortega in Tucumán – and the race ace was lured into Peronist politics for the last three decades of his life. That first term (1991-1995) was followed by a second (1999-2003) but a disastrous flood in the autumn of 2003 – after his months of flirtation with the presidential candidacy had definitely ended – put paid to any thought of a third term and he spent all the rest of that time (22 years in all) in the Senate where he favoured increasingly anti-Kirchnerite strands of Peronism, especially after the 2008-2009 clash with the farming sector over export duties, even backing the Mauricio Macri presidential candidacy in 2015. Not that he had anything in common with Peronism before a dying President Juan Domingo Perón expressed admiration for his driving skills in 1974.
That Senate seat of his, up for grabs this November, is now more vacant than ever while his beloved province of Santa Fe has now lost three ex-governors in little over a year – socialists Hermes Binner and Miguel Lifschitz (just two months ago) and now Reutemann last Wednesday.