Argentines gathered in Buenos Aires ahead of Thursday’s funeral of former president Nestor Kirchner, who was widely credited with bringing the country back from the brink of financial ruin during his 2003—07 mandate.

Kirchner, 60, died of a massive heart attack early Wednesday in his home town, El Calafate, some 2,800 kilometres south—west of Buenos Aires. He is survived by his widow, current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Sebastian Pinera of Chile, Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Rafael Correa of Ecuador confirmed their presence at the funeral.

Kirchner is to be buried in his native town of Rio Gallegos, in the country’s southern region of Patagonia, probably on Friday.

Tens of thousands of Argentines gathered spontaneously at the Plaza de Mayo square outside the government palace, in the city centre, after hearing the news of the centre—left Kirchner’s death.

An improvised altar sprang up with flowers, hand—written messages and flags in the memory of Kirchner, who had been considered a likely candidate for the 2011 presidency.

Late Wednesday, political parties and movements also rallied at the square alongside members of the public to pay their often tearful respects.

“Thank you, Nestor, you made Argentina stand up. You are a real patriot,” read one message.

Representatives of the Peronist party, which was led by Kirchner until his death, trade unions and social activists were at the square, as were several of Fernandez de Kirchner’s ministers.

“The Argentine people are starting to give back to Nestor Kirchner all that he has given them,” said Justice Minister Julio Alak.

Kirchner underwent heart surgery twice this year. In February, he suffered from an obstructed carotid artery, while in September he had an angioplasty.

His unexpected death is expected to leave a major vacuum in Argentine politics. It remains to be seen whether his widow is able to consolidate the support of the multifaceted Peronist movement.

Tributes poured in from the rest of Latin America and other parts of the world, including condolence messages from United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki—moon, US President Barack Obama and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Kirchner, who was the current president of the Union of South American Nations, was credited for his efforts to strengthen Latin American integration.

On Twitter, Mr. Chavez expressed his condolences to Kirchner’s widow.

“Oh, my dear Cristina, ... how great the pain! What a big loss for Argentina and our America! Long live Kirchner forever!” Kirchner was born on February 25, 1950 in the city of Rio Gallegos, in the province of Santa Cruz, where El Calafate is located. From a young age he was active in the Peronist movement.

He led the Argentine recovery from the severe economic and institutional crisis of 2001—02, before handing over power four years later to his wife, who won the election in the first round with Kirchner’s achievements as her campaign’s main persuasive element.

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