By Jimmy Burns - ‘La Presidenta’ relishes a battle – not least with the old enemy over the future of the Falklands. But is she losing her grip at home in Argentina?
Argentina’s president never appears in public without a heavy layer of make-up. “I put it on like I am painting a door,” she told her authorised biographer, Sandra Russo. Indeed, Russo’s book dedicates a whole chapter to the subject that many believe holds the key to who Cristina Fernández really is. One western diplomat in Buenos Aires – a woman – told me: “She really is beautiful when you meet her close up, and she is intelligent.” Her critics question her political credentials behind the mask. “Cristina uses her femininity, defends the feminist cause, but her politics are male. She concentrates power and is extremely narcissistic and authoritarian,” says Maria Laura Avignolo of the Argentine opposition newspaper Clarin.
To her supporters, the dark eye shadow and glossy lipstick, varnished nails, designer dresses and high heels show that Fernández, now 59, has not allowed nearly five years of power to dilute the femininity and discreet coquetry that (according to the nuns who educated her) has characterised her since her school days. In other words, she remains human, defining her womanhood on her own terms in a world where men still stoop to conquer. “I like to seduce. I don’t want people to just obey me. I want to convince them,” she told one of her closest aides.
With the approach of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war, Fernández has picked a protracted and bruising diplomatic fight with the old enemy. She has accused Britain of militarising the South Atlantic, called on Argentine companies to stop importing British goods and threatened a shipping blockade of the disputed islands, while getting other Latin American countries to pay more than lip service in support of Argentina’s 180-year-old sovereignty claim. She speaks – and acts – as though she is ready for more than just a short-term spat.
“Next year will mark 180 years since the usurpation by the government of the United Kingdom, which threw out the Argentines who were there [on the islands]. They want to make us out to be the bad and violent little ones, something we’re not,” she declared back in January, after returning to work following a cancer scare.
She has not let up since, using almost every public appearance to speak out for the Malvinas cause. The recent decision by Peru, one of Britain’s major trading partners on the continent, to cancel a goodwill visit by a Royal Navy frigate, has been celebrated by the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, as a sign that things are going La Presidenta’s way.
Her followers paint her in heroic terms: “I think her greatest diplomatic achievement is that the Malvinas is back on the map. Not only [David] Cameron but Peru and other Latin American countries are having to talk about it,” says Gabriela Cerruti, a Fernández ally in the Buenos Aires city legislature.
“She has demonstrated that she is a world leader and that she has a whole country behind her. Her clarity of ideas, her fighting spirit, her life and achievements as president can mobilise the Argentine people behind noble objectives,” was how Sergio Urribarri, governor of the province of Entre Rios and another loyalist, greeted her re-election last autumn.
But her critics claim she has since been increasingly losing the plot, disoriented by the absence of her politically influential husband, the late Nestor Kirchner, immunised from reality by a closed court of sycophantic officials and aides and egged on in her militancy by the pro-government newspaper, TV and radio channels she controls. “She is picking a fight to hide her political failings and a deteriorating economic situation,” says Carolina Barros, editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald.
What no one doubts is that the sudden death of Kirchner from a heart attack in October 2010 marked a defining moment in his wife’s political career, producing remarkable drama at the Casa Rosada. For hours, Fernández stood stoically by her husband’s coffin as it lay in state, greeting a seemingly endless line of mourners with a kiss or an embrace, while regularly touching the casket. She was visibly a widow in pain, but her composure remained, symbolically, presidential. She was dressed in black, with pearls. She has worn black ever since.
“She consoled a lot of people that night, militant supporters and [South American] presidents … She was La Presidenta and the widow, but she was also turning into a mother, as the hours went by … not allowing herself to be consoled, and instead taking charge of the situation. The ant nest of potential rivals that was the opposition fell away, without her having to do anything, except go on governing,” writes Russo.
And yet the extent to which she is a political force of her own making is disputed. “I don’t characterise Fernández as a political woman in her own right because one can’t separate her from the world that Kirchner built up around her,” says José Benegas, one of her most outspoken critics, who hosts a political radio show in Buenos Aires. “She has been a member of a political marriage. Until his death she was never a solitary woman trying to break into a world of men like Thatcher or Merkel. When Kirchner died he became like a ghost by her side. She invokes his name as a way of dealing with the vacuum he has left behind.”
Benegas argues that her biggest political challenge has been trying to prove that she is her own woman, but from “the top of a pyramid” to which she was taken by her husband. He shares the consensus of informed opinion that Kirchner’s decision, in 2007, to hand the presidential baton to his wife, was part of a deliberate strategy to bypass term limits and extend the dynasty. The deal, negotiated and agreed with his political supporters, was that he would remain as the main strategist behind her presidency and stand for re-election again once her term had expired. But the plan was cut short by his untimely and unexpected death.
Inevitably, any profile of Fernández involves a comparison with Eva Perón, one of the great legends of Argentine political history who, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the second wife and First Lady of the Argentine president General Juan Perón, was loved as much as she was hated. Such was the shadow “Evita” cast over her own sex that she became the measure by which all subsequent female Argentine politicians were judged, her legacy in Latin America an obstacle to some women coming to power, an encouragement to others.
After Perón was elected president in 1946, Evita took on the role of defender of the poor. The country’s landed rich demonised her as a fanatical whore and breathed a sigh of relief that she never became vice-president, a position she stood for in 1951. Evita died of cancer in 1952, aged 33, while Perón was still president. From this point on her supporters turned her into an icon of political struggle and social justice, a myth that endured long after Perón was deposed in a military coup in 1955 and went into exile in Spain until 1973.
Like Evita, Fernández was born illegitimate, but her father married her mother and she was never poor. She grew up with her sister and a favourite aunt in a secure middle-class family descended from Spanish immigrants who had made money from agriculture and a transport business. Fernández’s mother, whom she adored, venerated the memory of Evita: she remained a loyal follower of Perón and his political philosophy – a mish-¬¬mash of third world anti-imperialism and home-grown fascism, based on an alliance of business and organised labour and a popular mass of disenfranchised poor, responsive to “the conductor”, as Perón liked to call himself. As a young girl, one of Fernández’s favourite books was Evita’s ghosted autobiography, La Razón de Mi Vida (The Mission of My Life).
Fernández’s days as a law student in La Plata, the city where she was born, were overshadowed by the growing conflict between leftwing and rightwing armed groups, which intensified after Perón died in 1974. He was succeeded by his unelected third wife Isabel, a one-time nightclub dancer who had fallen under the influence of her personal secretary, José López Rega, popularly known as “El Brujo” (The Sorcerer) because of his occult spiritualist practices and his sinister links with death squads.
A year later Fernández met and married Kirchner while they were studying law together. When “Isabelita” was toppled in a military coup in 1976, Kirchner left La Plata to escape the repression and settled in the far-away Patagonian town of Rio Gallegos, in the province of Santa Cruz. “I am going to make a lot of money as a lawyer and become governor of Santa Cruz one day,” Kirchner told Fernández, according to her biographer. She followed him.
From that moment Fernández allowed her own career to be subsumed by her ¬husband’s. She gave birth to a son, Máximo, and a daughter, Florencia – while helping her husband run a successful private practice. While the military was still in power, Kirchner still managed to build up a local power base by working ¬discreetly among Perónist sympathisers from “neighbourhood to neighbourhood”.
During the Falklands war Fernández kept a low political profile while her husband attended a ceremony celebrating the “recovery” of the islands organised by the Argentine military. Recently, Fernández said she had not joined the crowds collectively endorsing the Argentine occupation of the islands 30 years ago, but sympathised with the conscripts: “We saw many soldiers leave from Rio Gallegos and some didn’t return.”
After the downfall of the military regime in 1983 and the holding of free elections, Kirchner became an elected local government officer in Rio Gallegos, and became mayor in 1986. One of his earliest acts was to build the first major war memorial to the Argentines killed in the Malvinas. Fernández’s biographer says that she has always shared her late husband’s deep feelings about the islands because, having lived in the south during the war, they were closer to the real tragedy of it than many of the politicians based in Buenos Aires. “The Malvinas is an issue that she carries deep in her heart.”
Kirchner became governor of the province of Santa Cruz in 1991, and Fernández was elected a deputy in the Santa Cruz provincial legislature. Four years later, when her husband was re-elected to office, Fernández became a representative of Santa Cruz in the national senate. There she gained a reputation as a hard-working conviction politician, with an ability to absorb a detailed brief and speak movingly without notes, as well as embarrass her opponents with aggressive questioning. Once she famously forced the head of the Buenos Aires police to admit that some of his officers may have been complicit in two major bomb attacks on Argentine Jews in 1992 and 1994. On another occasion she broke ranks and voted against the main congressional block of the Perónist party. “This is a barracks, and I refuse to be a conscript,” she said.
With his wife’s agreement, and the endorsement of key male Perónist party and trade union barons, Kirchner bid for the presidency in 2003. The move was timed to take maximum advantage of the confused political fall-out from the economic meltdown in 2001.
During Kirchner’s first term, Fernández was First Lady, a title that understated her own political role in supporting her husband in power. While Kirchner set about consolidating his personal ties with business and the trade union movement, Fernández’s highly combative discourse fuelled a militant core of additional support among young students and lower-income Argentines. It was textbook Perónism, with Fernández famously telling one interviewer she identified herself with the Evita “of the hair in the bun and clenched fist before a microphone”.
In 2007, when her husband persuaded her to stand for election as president, she wore designer outfits and let her long dark hair tumble over her shoulders, as it had done in her wilder student days. Whenever she took to the stage she did so with giant screens above her showing Kirchner. Her rallies were massive and militant, with a sea of Argentine flags suggesting an essentially nationalist power drive. When she won, Kirchner organised a huge victory ball for her where they danced tango into the night. “She is better at communicating with the people than her opponents,” Kirchner told Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist and close ally at the time. He also told him that he had genuine faith in her political abilities and that she would prove more capable than he had been.
She initiated that first term by insisting she be called La Presidenta, while hanging on to her maiden and married names. Kirchner remained her principal political ally and adviser, turning Argentina’s highest office into an effective political duopoly, or as political analyst Pablo Mendelevich has termed it, a diarchy.
Her critics nonetheless called her a “mare” and “Botox Evita”. They now suspected there was a populist despot in the making, inheriting the enormous wealth she had willingly allowed her husband to create. The first family’s business dealings came under scrutiny with the release between 2008 and 2010 of the president’s official declaration of assets. This showed an increase in the family’s wealth from $2.3m in 2003 to $18m in 2010, the most recent year for which assets have been declared. According to the declaration, most of their money came from property deals in Santa Cruz, and interests in apartments and hotels in Buenos Aires and Calafate, the Patagonian tourist resort where Fernández has a holiday home.
Kirchner’s death boosted his wife’s approval ratings in the opinion polls. When, in October 2011, she was re-elected with 54 per cent of the vote, she chose her own oath: “To God, country and Nestor.” Such rituals seemed to echo not so much Evita as Perón’s hapless widow, Isabelita, who encouraged superstition as a way of ensuring the transcendence in Argentine politics of Evita and Perón.
In recent weeks, opposition to Fernández has been stirred by allegations of financial irregularities which have besieged her vice-president, Amado Boudou. While Fernández has tried to distance herself from the case, critical journalists and opposition politicians believe this could be the tip of the iceberg. They have been waiting a long time for a smoking gun that will expose what they say really defines her power, a sort of Putin-style dual state.
“In Fernández’s Argentina, a formal constitutional order is in permanent tension with the cronyism which was encouraged by the late beloved Nestor,” a long-resident international banker in Buenos Aires told me, on condition of anonymity. He added: “Another aspect of her regime is La Campora – a praetorian guard of militant leftwing supporters, including her son Máximo [who founded the movement], several of whom have been appointed to strategic positions across government.”
But her supporters still defend her. “Whenever there is a woman in power, people are going to say that there are men behind her, simply because too many people still hate the idea of a woman taking decisions. La Campora is a youth group that supports this government, like many other social and human rights groups. All the rest is an invention of the [opposition] press which doesn’t have good information,” says Gabriela Cerruti.
Like other supporters, Cerruti goes on to argue that La Presidenta has resurrected the best of Perónism within a modern context: “She has Evita’s beauty and passion, but has the pragmatism, organisational powers and courage to confront the big corporations and the strategic vision of the world that Perón had.” (Argentines find it less easy, however, to make comparisons between Fernández and the nation’s nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, who has recently returned to haunt the streets of Buenos Aires in the movie The Iron Lady.)
“Fernández is the opposite of everything a true democracy should be,” adds José Benegas. “She believes that the state belongs to her. That a judge who questions her is against the people, that a congressman who votes against her is plotting to dethrone her. She threatens everyone who questions her or alleges corruption while refusing to give press conferences … She is a despot sustained by the adulation in which she is held by her staunchest supporters.”
A 15 per cent fall in her popularity rating since she was sworn in last December comes amid signs that the Argentine economy is beginning to falter. Political tension is on the increase, threatening a divisive power struggle over her succession in the run-up to mid-term election next year, with La Presidenta herself yet to rule out forcing a change in the constitution to stand for a third term. Her growing irritability suggests a harried figure less in control than she has been.
As the Falklands anniversary looms, Fernández claims the Malvinas as an issue on which she is winning increasing international support. But much as she might like to bolster her power as the saviour of the nation, her diplomatic offensive has a theatrical air about it, raising false expectations of a breakthrough. Her countrymen are no nearer gaining those islands that few of them are in any mood to fight over militarily – even if they could. (Published FT Magazine March 30.12)
Jimmy Burns was the FT’s correspondent in Buenos Aires from 1982 to 1986. A revised and updated version of his prize-winning book, ‘The Land that lost its Heroes: How Argentina lost the Falklands War’, is published by Bloomsbury.