Fernando de la Rúa, the Argentine leader whose dramatic departure by helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace in 2001 epitomized the tumult of his administration, a period of financial free-fall and deadly social unrest in one of Latin America’s largest economies, died July 9 in Buenos Aires. He was 81.

According to the Telam state news agency, he had cardiac and other ailments.

Mr. de la Rúa’s aggressively bland public personality — he proudly called himself “boring” in a TV campaign advertisement — was greeted as a welcome change to Argentine politics when he came to power in December 1999.

A legal scholar and longtime senator who served briefly as the first elected mayor of Buenos Aires, he emerged as a consensus choice for president in a center-left alliance that was seeking to quell the chaos fomented by a decade of erratic rule under Carlos Menem.

Mr. de la Rúa inherited the pandemonium, presiding over a crisis that thrust millions of middle-class Argentines into poverty, sent unemployment soaring above 20 percent and set the stage for default on the country’s $132 billion debt.

A century earlier, Argentina had been one of the 10 richest nations in the world. But the country had long teetered over the economic and political abyss under flamboyant nationalist-populists such as Juan Perón from 1946 to 1955 and the military leaders who led the 1976-1983 junta during which tens of thousands of citizens were killed or disappeared.

Menem, elected in 1989, had also struggled to combat unemployment and hyperinflation, and his conservative policies enraged many fellow Peronists — followers of the Justicialist Party of the late strongman who traditionally favored labor and big government. He privatized state-owned companies, curbed the power of labor unions, scissored state subsidies and pink-slipped thousands on the bloated government payroll.

Notable deaths in 2019: Ric Ocasek, Valerie Harper, Ross Perot, Toni Morrison, and others we have lost this year

Cokie Roberts | Cokie Roberts, a journalist and political commentator who became one of the most prominent Washington broadcasters of her era and championed young women in media during a long career with NPR and ABC News, died Sept. 17 in Washington. She was 75. Read the obituary (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In his most controversial maneuver, Menem fixed the exchange rate of the Argentine peso to the American dollar one to one. It brought a windfall of foreign investment at first but ultimately proved destabilizing, making the country impossibly expensive for the vast majority of Argentines.

Menem did himself no favors with an authoritarian tendency that led him to alter the constitution to permit him to seek a second consecutive term. As his country slid into recession, he did little to hide his taste for Ferraris and penchant for squiring beauty queens. His political actions and personal extravagance opened the way for Mr. de la Rúa, a stalwart of the centrist Radical Civic Union that forged an alliance with disgruntled Justicialists.

Mr. de la Rúa, who played up his sedate image in an election that was essentially a referendum on Menem, did not rouse Argentines with his vibrant oratory or record, but he trounced Justicialist candidate Eduardo Duhalde.

Congress, along with many governorships, remained in Peronist hands. And Mr. de la Rúa’s Alianza coalition was fragile — less ideologically than opportunistically aligned. The country was sliding deeper into recession, and Mr. de la Rúa, by most accounts, hesitated to take assertive steps to reverse course. He said drastic moves would spook investors or else provoke economic catastrophe that the political opposition could then use as ammunition against him.

Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, he made gestures toward austerity, including an unsuccessful effort to sell the luxurious presidential jet Tango 01 that Menem purchased for $66 million. But he largely maintained Menem’s economic policies. Meanwhile, it became cheaper for investors to park money in Brazil and other countries that had devalued their currency.

Mr. de la Rúa’s coalition frayed with an alleged vote-buying scandal in late 2000 in which several administration officials were accused of paying senators $5 million to pass a bill weakening workplace protections. His vice president resigned, reportedly in protest of Mr. de la Rúa’s unwillingness to investigate the charges vigorously. The president’s approval rating plummeted to 7 percent, and the alliance was walloped in the 2001 midterms.

After a bank run in November 2001, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo imposed the “corralito,” a last-ditch move severely limiting bank withdrawals. Across the country, protesters wielding pots and pans clanged out their anger. Some started fires on the boulevards of the capital city. Mr. de la Rúa declared a state of emergency, which did little to lessen public rage. Demonstrators turned more violent. There was looting.

Authorities deployed tear gas and rubber bullets, and rode through the streets on horseback striking protesters with clubs. Marchers yelled back, “Assassins! Assassins!”

More than 20 people were killed in confrontations with police, and dozens more on both sides were injured.

Mr. de la Rúa’s attempts to form a new government with the opposition were rebuffed. In a position he described as “total solitude,” he tendered his resignation on Dec. 20 and alighted by helicopter. It was widely seen as a moment of disgrace.

In a 2016 interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, he blamed the IMF and his political opposition for creating conditions ripe for a “civil coup,” accusing Peronists and the media of encouraging the protests and then blaming the government for repression. He also criticized the head of presidential security for insisting on his evacuation by helicopter. “That was a mistake,” he said, “like all those cases in which one allows an image to become a symbol.”

During a series of caretaker administrations and after the election of Peronist Néstor Kirchner in 2003, the government abandoned the fixed exchange-rate system and broke with the IMF by defaulting temporarily on its debt — steps that Mark Weisbrot, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, said were “extremely gutsy” and “necessary” for Argentina’s recovery. The economy fell sharply in early 2002 but began to skyrocket after that. A demand for Argentine commodities such as beef and soybeans helped generate ample financial reserves.

Mr. de la Rúa, Weisbrot said, “did not take the steps necessary to begin an economic recovery. Instead he followed the policies that were supported by the IMF, and that pushed the economy deeper into depression. The proof only became clear after he left, when you had one of the fastest developing economies in the world for six years.”

Fernando de la Rúa was born in Córdoba, Argentina’s second-largest city, on Sept. 15, 1937. He received a doctorate in law from the University of Córdoba at 21 and began his rise in the Radical Civic Union while writing books on legal procedure.

In 1973, Mr. de la Rúa was elected as a senator representing Buenos Aires and also was the running mate of Ricardo Balbín, who lost decisively to Peronist presidential candidate Héctor Cámpora. Mr. de la Rúa returned to legal practice during the junta years — working for Bunge y Born, one of Argentina’s largest conglomerates — and resumed his Senate career after the military rule.

In 1996, he became Buenos Aires’s first elected mayor, a position previously filled by presidential appointment. His term at the helm of Argentina’s largest city, with 12 million inhabitants, was perhaps the high point of his career. He vowed to emphasize probity, fiscal restraint and good services in a municipality not known for any of those qualities.

He was credited with transforming a $600 million deficit into a surplus by targeting sticky-fingered city officials and politically connected business executives who had wangled sweetheart deals. He also grew the city’s subway system. His reputation as a municipal leader helped elevate him to the presidency.

In 1970, he married Inés Pertiné Urien. She survives, as do three children, Antonio, Fernando and Agustina.

Mr. de la Rúa faced trial in 2012 and 2013 for his alleged role in the vote-buying scandal that tarnished his administration. He and several colleagues were acquitted. “With this verdict,” he said, “I have recovered my dignity.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Marie Ponsot, elegant poet of the sea, stars and her seven-child family, dies at 98

Martin Charnin, director and lyricist who brought ‘Annie’ to Broadway, dies at 84

João Gilberto, a quiet and leading voice of Brazil’s bossa nova music, dies at 88

Reynaldo Bignone, last leader of Argentina’s murderous junta, dies at 90

Jorge Rafael Videla, Argentine junta leader, dies at 87