An Argentine fable: Cristina Kirchner's tall stories

The successive presidencies of the Kirchner couple, Néstor and now his widow Cristina, have led Argentina since the country survived near-collapse in the early 2000s. Now, Mrs Kirchner's ideological ambition and uncertain grasp of reality are taking her political experiment in worrying directions, says Celia Szusterman.

Celia Szusterman
4 October 2012

"Take care of freedom and truth will take care of itself" - Richard Rorty

When Néstor Kirchner died in October 2010, many in Argentina wondered how his widow would cope. Even after Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had succeeded him as the country's president in December 2007, it was no secret that her husband was continuing to wield political and economic power behind the scenes. Just after her inauguration, Néstor told her ministers "not to go with problems to Cristina". He would be the one who solved the problems.

Cristina herself, re-elected for a second term in October 2011 with 54% of the vote, reinforced this view of their relationship when she confessed: "He looked after me…sometimes, I had to tell him not to treat me as a little girl"…he told others to 'look after her', and I promised him [when I was elected president] that I would not let him down". It will never be known if Néstor Kirchner felt "let down"; but what can be said with certainty is that the "project" or "model" that Mrs Kirchner insisted until very recently had begun in 2003 with her husband's election as president, has changed substantially since his term in office (2003-07).

The change has been not just in the policies but in what Mrs Kirchner was fond of calling the "narrative" - the fashionable notion, drawn inter alia from Howard Gardner's Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (1996), that political leaders must also be storytellers, capable of delivering a plausible account of "where we are coming from, where we are now, and where we are going". In this perspective, her every act and announcement, however insignificant, was to become a landmark in the epic "refoundation" of Argentina following years of decline and (in 2000-02) economic near-collapse. Néstor Kirchner's election as president is the originating moment of this process.

Two years after his death, Néstor continues to play the lead role in the story his widow tells. Her loss is so great that she continues to dress in black; she hardly ever mentions her husband by name, but refers - with a suggestion of god-like attributes - to "Him". When she was inaugurated for the second time, she received the sash from her daughter with the formula: "[should I not obey the Constitution] let God, the people and Him, hold me to account".

Vamos por todo

Néstor Kirchner liked to repeat that in 2003 he had found Argentina in hell. Years later, he said it was now out of hell, but not yet in paradise. Mrs Kirchner talks as if she believes that she has actually led Argentina into paradise, and that any residual problems are the consequence of "the world [crisis] falling on Argentina". In contrast, she never acknowledged the benign role played by the favourable world conditions of 2003-07.

Since her husband's death, Mrs Kirchner has become more intolerant, more ideological, more imperial in her style and comportment. She uses the national broadcasting network to question the integrity of journalists who publish critical articles. The tone of her speeches varies between aggression and euphoria. Her speeches contrast her "joy and optimism" with the "despair and despondency" spread by (usually unnamed) opponents who question her version of reality. The latter, especially when they accuse her of authoritarianism, tend to be labelled "neoliberals" who are intent on "destabilising the national and popular government" ("nac & pop" as it is known colloquially).

The broadcasts themselves appear to breach Article 75 of the media law of 2009 - which allows them to take place on "exceptional and serious situations" or during an "institutional transcendence". This does not trouble the president, who has to date spoken to the nation fifteen times in 2012 on topics ranging from the inauguration of the Tecnopolis theme-park to the opening of a motorway and of Argentina's pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

When Mrs Kirchner was re-elected in October 2011 she declared: "We are now going for everything" ("vamos por todo"). The meaning is now becoming clear in the cultural battle, waged in workshops for the "strengthening of democracy". The prize remains total control of the media. Many regional and international media associations have warned of a climate of fear installed among journalists, and the use of government publicity placed only in friendly media. In the first half of 2012, the International Association of Journalists Without Frontiers. the International Association of Radio Broadcasting, Human Rights Watch and the Interamerican Press Association - as well as the Argentine Forum of Journalists and the Association of Argentine News Media - have all raised concerns about the worrying context in which Argentina's journalists are working.

The success story

Mrs Kirchner's story describes Argentina's growth successes as not only "the best in 200 years of history" but the best in Latin America in the last decade. The Kirchnerista "model", based on a "productive base, distribution of income and social inclusion" is thus somehow portrayed as better and more successful than other countries in the region. This account ignores inconvenient facts such as that Argentina's growth (of 3%, taking a long view), is no better than Brazil's or Chile's, that inflation at an estimated 25% (though official figures are in single digits) far exceeds several neighbours' rates, and that relentless capital flight and a fall in foreign direct investment point towards the stagflation scenarios of the 1960s-1980s.

The lack of fit between her story and the evidence may explain why more recently, Mrs Kirchner has stopped referring to the alleged continuity of the model since 2003. Alberto Fernandez, who as cabinet secretary from 2003-08 was Néstor Kirchner's closest collaborator and friend, charges Mrs Kirchner with departing from her husband's policies - including on the relative autonomy of the central bank, an institution the president dismissed as "anti-popular".

In the same remarkable speech, she referred to the global league table of central bankers published by Global Finance magazine, in which Argentina's Mercedes Marcó del Pont - in a distinction shared only with his counterpart in Ecuador - was awarded a "D". Mrs Kirchner's riposte was sarcastic: since one of the criteria for assessment was the relevant central-banker's determination to confront political interference, had "Mercedes" been awarded an "A", "she would have found herself in a serious problem with me".

The real trends

But stories have consequences, especially when they are self-serving - and often simply untrue. In 2003, Argentina's national economic context was one of a default on public debt, very low salaries, high unemployment, unused capacity, and a very high exchange-rate; while the global context was highly favourable as a result of the financial extravagance of rich countries and the emergence of China and India into the global circuits of production and consumption. Here, Argentina's vernacular populism omits some key elements of the government story that then started to erode its relative price advantage in favour of an embrace of tradeables and import-substitution:

* The energy market was subject to strong intervention, which disincentivised investment and supply via artificially low prices

* Public services were subsidised, first with higher taxes and later via printing money and inflation

* The agricultural market was destroyed via state intervention in the beef, corn and wheat markets (including export prohibition and quotas). This led to an extension of soya cultivation and soil degradation (Argentina cultivates nine million hectares of maize, wheat and rapeseed, and eighteen million hectares of soya)

* Real wages were artificially increased, well above productivity gains (according to doctored figures from the Institute of Official Statistics [Indec], real wages rose by 292% between 2006-11, while prices are supposed to have risen only by 67% during the same period (see Alieto Guadagni, TN, 24 August 2012). Why then hasn't Argentina become the greatest "pull factor" in international migration trends; why aren't queues forming outside Argentine consulates the world over with people anxious to emigrate to such a paradise?

* Pensions were raised, leading to the funding crisis of the nationalised state-pension system

* Public employment increased: 300 people enter the public administration (national, provincial, municipal or state enterprises) every day

* The Institute of Official Statistics was undermined, leaving the country without reliable statistics for over sixty-seven months (Szewachnomics, 16 July 2012)

Argentina in autumn 2012 is experiencing rising inflation, falling employment and economic activity, and an escalation on the value of the black-market US dollar (popularly known as el azul, the "blue" dollar) and with monetary expansion at an annual rate of 35%. In its annual report on the economic situation of Latin America, published on 2 October 2012, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) states that the weakness of the world economy will affect growth in the region, with an average GDP growth in 2012 of 3.2%. Yet Argentina (2.0%) and Brazil (1.6%) will have the lowest growth (Panama's 9.5% is followed by Perú's 5.9%, Bolivia, Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela with 5% and México with 4%). Perspectives for both Argentina and Brazil are better for 2013, raising growth estimates for the region as a whole to 4%. The disastrous drought in the US is driving up the price of maize and soya, Argentina's two main exports, which will add sufficient funds to the treasury chest for the kind of populist spending that the government hopes will help it win the mid-term legislative elections of October 2013 - and the two-thirds majority needed to appoint a constitutional assembly that would draft a new constitution.

The next ambition

This is a core part of Mrs Kirchner's current political motivation. A group of intellectuals close to the government have started a "Movement for a New Emancipating Constitution". The intellectuals of Carta Abierta have rejected the constitution being turned into an untouchable fetish. In their twelfth "open letter" they ask: "Is it not urgent to set aside, by means of a new constitution, the brutal limitations imposed on us in times of submission and impunity, of exclusion and abdication of rights?" [see an excellent analysis of the obscure language of Carta Abierta in Ricardo Gil Lavedra's article in Escenarios Alternativos, 2 October 2012].

The "imposition" referred to occurred in 1994, when Mr and Mrs Kirchner were part of a constituent assembly that approved the then reformed constitution. On that occasion, it was no secret that behind the "need" for change was President Carlos Menem's wish to be re-elected a second time.

Argentina's original constitution of 1853 was modelled on that of the United States - the best model of a republican constitution then available. To meet the Jeffersonian objective of preventing dictatorship via an over-powerful executive, it included a division of powers as the mechanism to introduce checks and balances. The Argentine constitution of 1994 also contains provisions on the separation of powers as well as extensive freedoms (including property rights).

It is, then, far from clear what "emancipation" and "brutal limitations" the intellectuals' "open letter" refers to, until the following:

"The current constitution […] was thought for the neoliberal project of submission of the Nation, of selling out of the economy, of looting our natural resources and of the exclusion of millions of Argentines who were left without food nor work, notwithstanding the brave resistance of wide sectors of the popular camp […] and it was Néstor Kirchner who began to write its epitaph".

(It seems that in the span of a decade, Néstor Kirchner had moved from signing an instrument for the submission of the Argentine people to starting the process of reverting it. Yet a poll published by Poliarquía on 2 September 2012 indicates that 66% of the population oppose constitutional reform, and 40% of those who voted for Mrs Kirchner in October 2011 oppose her standing for a second re-election.)

The urgency to amend the constitution to allow for Mrs Kirchner's re-election once more highlights the permanent dilemma at the heart of Peronism: succession. Mexico's PRI got round this for over seventy years by establishing a mechanism whereby each president chosen by the party hierarchy could serve only one six-year period.

Argentina's experience is more personalised. The attempt to have Eva Perón elected vice-president was thwarted in 1952; soon after, she died. Juan Perón himself was ousted by a civil-military coup in 1955. When he was again elected president in 1973 following his return from exile, Perón chose his third (and eminently unsuitable) wife to run as vice-president. His death in July 1974 opened the doors to her disastrous presidency and in turn, to the bloody military dictatorship of March 1976 (which lasted until 1983).

Néstor Kirchner devised a mechanism to evade the principle encoded in the constitution of 1994, which allowed just one re-election. At the end of his first period in office (2003-07), he chose his wife to run as his successor. If he had lived, in theory an alternation of Kirchners could rule indefinitely in the government house. Now, however, there is a problem. Mrs Kirchner has no successor. Her son is wholly unprepared, her sister-in-law (blessed with the Kirchner surname) has no chance, and the vice-president Mrs Kirchner chose in 2011 has proved unsuitable, inept and corrupt. But she will not get rid of him, because it would be an admission of fault; and in Mrs Kirchner's narrative, she can neither do harm nor make bad decisions.

The anti-politics country

The late Brazilian sociologist Helio Jaguaribe once conjectured that the difference between Brazil and Argentina was that Brazil's historical narrative was lyrical, while Argentina's was epic: the gentleness of the former contrasted with the virulence of the latter. Cristina Kirchner's peculiar twist on the epic theme includes (in August 2012) the delivery of eulogies to such disparate figures as Gaucho Rivero, a rebel against the Argentine - not the British - authorities on the Malvinas/Falklands islands in 1833; Envar El Khadri, a guerrilla leader who took up arms against Argentina's democratic government in 1963; and a Peronist group that hijacked an Aerolineas Argentinas flight in 1966 and forced it to land on the Malvinas/Falklands (in this case ignoring the fact that they had been supported and supplied by the military- intelligence services).

In respect of the 1963 incident, the president said that she wouldn't be able to do "any of the things I do" were it not for the fact that she is "interpreting a collective feeling that comes from the depths of history" and is created by "men and women who gave their lives for the happiness of the people and the greatness of the nation".

Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, wrote that two of the essential components of the "democratic soul" were compassion (democracy makes us gentler to one another) and restiveness, or a constant questioning. Mrs Kirchner's combination of rhetorical indulgence, a cavalier attitude to the facts, and abuse of power is more reminiscent of the hatred and confrontation that de Tocqueville saw as features of the ancien regime.

Bernard Crick, in In Defence of Politics, understood politics as a distinctive type of human activity carried out according to rules guiding decisions about conflicts of interest. If the latter are reduced to a binary logic of friend vs enemy, then there can only be one "legitimate" interest: that of the people, as interpreted by the leader as embodiment of the people's will. Argentina is in this light turning into a political experiment which smacks of anti-politics.

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