|Usuario :||Encuentro con los Kirchner (en inglés) - 19-1-08 . . .|
“AMERICAN INTEREST “ MAGAZINE
pols & polls
Meet the Kirchners
He is a popular president, the former governor of rather backward state, who completes his tenure in office with the highest approval rating in memory. She is an ambitious lawyer with an agenda and following of her own, who leverages her celebrity and her husband’s popularity into a Senate seat representing a state other than her own. After a relatively brief time in office she, too, decides to run for president. Although not without political liabilities, few doubt she can win her party’s nomination. And as of this writing, polls show no opposition candidate likely to defeat her.
The couple in question is not Bill and Hillary Clinton—though it well might be—but Néstor and Cristina Kirchner,
Indefinite is the operative word here, because unlike the U.S. Constitution, which specifically forbids any individual from serving as president for more than two terms or more than ten years, the 1994 Argentine charter sets no barrier to the number of periods any chief executive may serve. Still, Néstor is not seeking the presidency in the coming October 28 election, but Christina is. What makes Néstor Kirchner’s obvious ploy—to wrestle as a presidential tag team with his wife—all the more stunning is the fact that few Argentine presidents since 1928 have managed to complete their terms, and almost none have left office with an option to return. This somber fact leads some observers to wonder whether, by stepping aside, Kirchner is doing his wife a favor at all. Maybe, they speculate, he is pushing her forward as a sacrificial lamb in the event of a future crisis.
If so, Madame Kirchner shows no sign of worrying about it. Within a week of announcing her candidacy in mid-July she set off on another of her whirlwind trips to
Tourists who flock to
Néstor Kirchner was born the son of a postal employee in
Following the military coup of 1976, Kirchner and his new wife decamped to Río Gallegos. Precisely how the two managed to avoid the haphazard dragnet with which the military and police “disappeared” thousands of leftist and Peronist militants in the late 1970s remains a matter of acute speculation, since Río Gallegos is too small a town for blending seamlessly into the environment. All that is known is that during these years (1976–82) the Kirchners tended without apparent difficulty to their burgeoning law practice and also to the acquisition of significant real estate holdings.
The Lost Generation
While the Kirchners themselves may have been rather lukewarm participants in the leftist-nationalist effervescence that accompanied the run-up to General Perón’s return to power in 1973, chronologically they belong to (and now speak for and are surrounded by) what might be called Argentina’s Lost Generation of the 1970s. The term describes a group of young people much inspired by the Cuban revolution, by the Allende experiment in
That wheel turned slowly. Even after
Alfonsín’s successor Carlos Menem (1990–2000), though formally a Peronist, surprised the world by immediately embracing financial orthodoxy, for example, by privatizing many state enterprises and pegging the peso to the U.S. dollar. He also shocked everyone by enthusiastically declaring his “automatic alignment” with the
For about five or six years Menem’s volte face in domestic and foreign policy was popular, but the decision to peg the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar, though it initially brought inflation to a dead halt, was a risky proposition, since it required endless foreign borrowing to maintain the peg. It also gradually rendered Argentine exports prohibitively expensive. Menem and his financial guru, Domingo Cavallo, managed to leave office just before the bill came due. It was left to President Fernando de la Rúa (2000–01) to face the collapse.
Those who did not live through the Argentine financial crisis of 2001–02 cannot possibly grasp just how profoundly it affected the society and its values. It can only be compared to the 1923 currency crisis in
The National Congress building in
Not surprisingly, President de la Rúa was forced to resign, as were two of his immediate successors within almost as many days. A modicum of stability was finally restored under Eduardo Duhalde (2002–03), but to this day ordinary Argentines bear the psychological scars of those months.
The crisis of 2001–02 has bequeathed several important legacies in Argentine politics. The first is a deep distrust of “neoliberalism”—which is to say, free market economics, unregulated utilities, tax incentives to foreign investment and close relations with international financial institutions. The second is a return to
These are precisely the mixed legacies the Kirchners depend on. Néstor Kirchner’s big tent now has room for all kinds of people who would previously have been considered outside the mainstream of Argentine politics. For example, the current deputy foreign minister, Eduardo Sigal, is a former Communist Party leader. Functionaries of lesser distinction include veterans of the urban guerrilla movement of the 1970s that provided the rationale for the military coup. Menem’s amnesty has been revoked and many human rights cases have been reopened. Judicial curiosity has even pushed back the timeline for investigating unacceptable conduct by the security forces. It had been March 1976, when the government of President Isabel Perón, who succeeded her husband upon his death in 1974, was deposed by a military junta. Now, the date has been moved back to the beginning of her presidency, and Isabel Perón herself is at risk. The government is seeking her extradition from
More traditional Peronists, starting with ex-President Duhalde, view all this with apprehension and distaste. They have rallied to Duhalde’s former Finance Minister Eduardo Lavagna, who is slated to be the consensus opposition candidate in the October elections. Although undoubtedly the strongest single figure the Peronists and opposition Radicals can put forward—he can claim credit for having steered Argentina successfully through the darkest moments of its recent crisis—few give Lavagna much of a chance against the Kirchner tag team.
All this background is necessary to understand the success of Néstor Kirchner, something no one could have predicted at the start of his term. After all, he won only 22 percent of the vote in the 2003 elections in an admittedly many-sided race. (There was no second round because ex-President Menem, who polled 25 percent, gracelessly withdrew from the contest, depriving his rival of much needed legitimacy.) To put no great gloss on the matter, Néstor Kirchner is not a particularly attractive or prepossessing individual, singularly lacking in charisma or charm. He has a speech defect, and a wandering right eye, too.
Today, of course, nobody disputes that the Argentine President has made excellent use of his opportunities. But he has also been extraordinarily lucky. Apart from being able to continually remind his critics of the parlous conditions under which he assumed office, he has presided over a remarkable economic recovery due to a serendipitous rise in prices for Argentine agricultural exports—enhanced by a deep currency devaluation that made them doubly competitive in world markets. At the same time, he has shown, yet again, that a cornered animal can fight back effectively. He has proven to be a tenacious negotiator with holders of $140 billion worth of Argentine debt paper, forcing most creditors to settle for thirty or so cents on the dollar. This makes
Examining the figures for the short run, one can see why Kirchner is confident he can play the Argentine political game by his own rules.
It is clear that new investment has dropped dramatically, and that the country is devouring the capital stocks it acquired in the previous decade. The only new industry to have experienced significant growth in recent times is tourism. There has been a quiet emigration to Europe,
Spanish for Hillary
Unlike her husband, whose personality and style in no way recall Bill Clinton, Madame Kirchner invites considerable comparison with the distaff side of our own power couple. Like Hillary, Cristina is ambitious, disciplined, focused and ideologically centered—all this despite not being a Methodist. And like her American counterpart, she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to take on difficult political challenges.
Cristina Kirchner with Hillary Clinton in 2003 [credit: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis]
Thus, having served
Even before her recent consecration as the government’s official candidate, Madame Kirchner had grown used to traveling with an entourage more nearly like that of a chief of state. On a trip to
Like Mrs. Clinton, Cristina Kirchner sees her candidacy as setting an historical precedent. She believes the 21st century will be “the century of women.” Her press officers made much of her visit last spring (three minutes long, including the time for translation) with French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, as well as her purportedly “close personal friendship” with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (whom she in no way resembles in style or substance). She has been quoted as considering a Hillary Clinton presidency in the
What particular policies will follow from this feminization of international politics is not clear. Nor is it apparent how, once in office, Cristina Kirchner’s policies will differ from those of her husband. Some hope she will pursue a more pragmatic and less ideological foreign policy, and address some of the pending economic issues which prevent
Néstor, meanwhile, will reportedly devote his retirement to building a political party of his own, the ambition of every Argentine president in memory. Presumably, it would be a centrist-populist movement organized around the cult of a single couple, but one reaching further into the ideas and constituencies of the Left than did Peronism. If the Kirchners’ luck holds out, the male half of the pair can then return in triumph in 2011.
But who can say for sure that Néstor will return?
Many Argentine intellectuals and commentators (none associated with the country’s small and ineffectual Right) have warned that the bill for postponing critical policy decisions and depending wholly on circumstantial factors is soon to come due. Novelist and philosopher Marcos Aguinis has bemoaned the fact that Argentine populism “continues to trap our country in a nauseating festival of mediocrity and irrelevance.” Historian Luis Alberto Romero complains that