By Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, economy minister during the most brutal years of Argentina's "dirty war" dictatorship and architect of some of the crisis-prone nation's most infamous economic experiments, has died at age 87.
The former economy chief, who was under house arrest as part of an investigation into the kidnapping of two businessmen, died on Saturday in Buenos Aires, local newspapers reported on their websites.
Martinez de Hoz's name became a byword for economic mismanagement in Argentina, but his plan to get the troubled national economy in order was initially lauded on Wall Street.
Prominent U.S. banker David Rockefeller called his strategy "brilliant, solid and absolutely realistic" in a 1978 interview, describing how he promptly granted a Chase Bank loan to the country. Further credits followed.
It was the start of a mounting foreign debt that critics say sowed the seeds for the country's economic meltdown more than two decades later when a deep crisis unleashed the biggest sovereign default in history.
Argentina's economy was in bad shape in 1976 when the newly installed military junta tapped Martinez de Hoz, who hailed from a wealthy farming family and had close links to business, to take on the job as economy minister.
His first challenge was to tackle spiraling inflation.
"I didn't want to be minister," he said in an interview in 2007. "(But) they threatened to put someone from the military in the job and - to avert disaster - I felt obliged to accept."
His so-called Tablita (little table), a scheme aimed at letting the peso depreciate gradually and steadily against the U.S. dollar, shaped economic policy from 1978 until its acrimonious collapse in 1981.
The peso's over-valuation caused a gaping balance of payments deficit to develop by 1980, fueling capital flight, battering local export industries and ushering in a period known as "sweet money" (plata dulce).
Argentines flush with over-valued pesos took holidays abroad and famously came home loaded with foreign-made goods.
But in 1981, when the collapse of industry sent the country into a deep recession, Martinez de Hoz's Tablita was put to rest and a devaluation followed.
Leaving the country with a massive debt that was to plague it for decades, it marked the end of Martinez de Hoz's career as economy minister.
It did not mark the end of his troubles, however.
Nicknamed Joe or Josecito, Martinez de Hoz was arrested in 2010 and held on remand at his home as part of an investigation into allegations he was involved in the kidnapping of two businessmen, Federico Gutheim and his son Miguel. Martinez de Hoz denied any links to the case.
Soon after his detention, his sons Marcos and Jose Martinez de Hoz took out a paid advertisement in leading newspaper Clarin in which they accused President Cristina Fernandez of waging a "persistent campaign of hate and persecution" against their father through the courts.
Martinez de Hoz was unrepentant about his policies and defended the brutal rule of former dictator Jorge Videla, during which thousands of people were killed in a state crackdown on leftist dissent.
"(Videla) had to defend society from the attacks of terrorist groups," he said in the same 2007 interview.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)