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Argentina's pre-default president de la Rua dies at 81

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Fernando de la Rua, who led Argentina through a debilitating economic depression that eventually led to the country’s record sovereign debt default, died on Tuesday after falling ill with heart problems. He was 81 years old.

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Argentina’s current president Mauricio Macri sent condolences on social media, saying De la Rua’s service deserved the “recognition of all Argentines.”

De la Rua won election in 1999 with a reputation for being dull that appealed to Argentines weary of the tabloid personal life of his flamboyant predecessor, Carlos Menem, who was losing control of the economy by the end of his second term.

But de la Rua was forced to leave office before completing his first term as the economy spiraled out of control and Argentines protested.

He initially enjoyed strong approval ratings, but he inherited an economy that was becoming increasingly mired in debt and dogged by growing discontent over high unemployment. Then the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and turmoil roiled global financial markets.

Argentina and its dollar-pegged peso currency were battered, and De la Rua’s lack of charisma created a sense of government inaction. By late 2001 Argentina’s economy was crumbling and Argentines clamored for the president to quit and staged a run on banks as they tried to obtain safe-haven U.S. dollars.

Protests intensified with a rejection of politicians under the rallying cry “away with them all.” On Dec. 20, de la Rua heeded their demand, fleeing the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires in a military helicopter.

The son of a judge and longtime supporter of the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR) party, de la Rua taught criminal law at the University of Buenos Aires after the March 1976 coup that suspended Congress.

He was only the second president from outside Argentina’s dominant Peronist movement to assume power following the end of a military dictatorship in 1983.

His alliance failed to win a majority in Congress and lost key provincial elections to the Peronists.

Just as Raul Alfonsin before him, de la Rua failed to finish his first term, quitting just half way through, underlining the influence retained by the Peronists who governed some of the largest regions and dominated powerful trade unions.

De la Rua was hounded by numerous charges and legal battles in the years after he quit the presidency, linked to police violence during the riots and also faced allegations linked to a Senate bribery scandal.

Reporting by Eliana Raszewski, Walter Bianchi, writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by David Gregorio