Meet the Kirchners

Resident Scholar Emeritus Mark Falcoff
Resident Scholar Emeritus
Mark Falcoff
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, Argentina's newest power couple. Virtually unknown a mere five years ago to most Argentines, let alone to the world at large, their audacity, ruthlessness and a fortuitous convergence of domestic and international factors have tempted the Kirchners to imagine themselves ruling one of South America's most important countries for the indefinite future.

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 Europe to seek photo-ops with her presumptive future colleagues.

The Old Home Place

Tourists who flock to Argentina these days (thanks to a radical devaluation of the peso five years ago, it has become a highly popular destination) do not typically visit Santa Cruz. It is Argentina's southernmost province, bordering on Chilean Patagonia, about the size of Minnesota but with a population of barely 125,000 people and nearly half as many sheep. Windswept and inhospitable, it possesses, however, one matchless asset: great riches of oil and gas. During his years as governor, Néstor Kirchner prudently deposited the region's earnings from energy exports in Swiss bank accounts. Thus when Argentina's currency collapsed in 2002, his provincial treasury retained its value. Even so, until President Eduardo Duhalde picked Kirchner to be his successor in the 2003 elections, he was not a particularly significant figure in Argentine politics. Perhaps that is why Duhalde tapped him for the honor. If so, Duhalde has proven to be a poor judge of his own interests.

Néstor Kirchner was born the son of a postal employee in 1950 in Río Gallegos, the provincial capital of Santa Cruz province. He was educated at the University of La Plata, which, then as now, was a stronghold of Argentina's radical Left. Like most politically ambitious members of his student generation, Kirchner joined the Peronist Youth at a time when General Perón himself was about to return from exile in Spain to win triumphant re-election in 1973. It was at La Plata, too, that he met his future wife Cristina Fernández, a fellow law student whose political interests are recalled by contemporaries to have been somewhat more intense than his own.

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.

When Argentina returned to democracy in 1983, both Kirchners were elected to political office; he as intendent (mayor) of Río Gallegos, she as a member of the provincial assembly. Subsequently, Néstor served for 12 years as governor of Santa Cruz, while Cristina represented the same constituency in the Argentine national Senate. There is little in either's record to anticipate their present ideological identities. For example, when President Carlos Menem decided to privatize the Argentine state oil company, YPF, in the mid-1990s, Néstor was publicly supportive of this very controversial move, and his wife piloted the legislation through the provincial assembly. Cristina's subsequent career in the Argentine Senate was not particularly significant except in one respect: She was sufficiently unpleasant to her colleagues as to be excluded from her party's caucus.

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 Chile, by the 1968 student upheavals in Paris and by the antiwar movement in the United States. But unlike their counterparts in more stable democratic countries, their eventual assimilation into conventional politics was derailed by a military coup and the temporary installation of a police state. Some of the Kirchners' student friends disappeared into unmarked graves, others fled to Spain, Mexico or Venezuela, and still others were forced to go underground or abandon political work altogether. The Lost Generation had to wait a long time to take its turn at the wheel.

That wheel turned slowly. Even after Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, there was no sharp turn to the Left, thanks in large part to constraints imposed by the international financial institutions. In spite of thunderous rhetoric on the campaign trail, once in office President Raúl Alfonsín (1983-89) steered a cautious middle course. He even put an end to prosecutions of former military officers for human rights offenses. For all his moderation, Alfonsín was a poor economic steward. He was forced to leave office eight months early because a wave of hyperinflation pushed the country to the edge of social chaos.

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 United States in matters of foreign policy. To make matters worse for the Left, Menem issued a blanket pardon to all human rights offenders formerly serving in the military or the police.

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 Weimar Germany, or the massive expropriation of the Russian landholding, business and middle classes after 1917. A drastic devaluation in January 2002 caused the currency to lose two thirds of its value virtually overnight. In April the government seized control of the banks, after which, for weeks on end, ordinary Argentines could not access their own money. Thousands of supermarkets and neighborhood groceries were looted. The Congress building--a magnificent beaux-arts pile sitting in the center of Buenos Aires--was sacked and partially destroyed. There were a record number of fatal heart attacks for the year. The Italian and Spanish Embassies were besieged with people demanding passports on the basis of ancestry. Some provinces seriously considered leaving the Argentine federation altogether.

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 Argentina's traditional dislike and distrust of the United States, this time with a decidedly leftist tilt. Polls reveal that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez are now Argentines' most popular foreign leaders. The third, which follows from the first and second, is a kind of bitter ideological vindication of the Argentine Left, which, though large in size, has ever been divided into dozens of sects.

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 Spain, though she is in her late seventies and is said to be mentally unwell.

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.

Néstor Rises

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 Argentina's default the largest single sovereign repudiation in financial history. To be sure, a not insignificant remainder, who collectively holds $20 billion worth of Argentine government paper, remains unsatisfied. As far as Kirchner is concerned, these uncompensated debtors have no place to go. The fact that this makes it more difficult for the country to place new issues on the bond market (or to pay exhorbitant rates for those it can) seems not to bother him.

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. Argentina's economic recovery, running between 7 and 9 percent growth a year, puts it ahead of almost all its Latin American neighbors. Even so, the country is still far from where it was ten or even twenty years ago. The imposition of price controls has led to shortages of energy and even at times of meat, one of the country's major exports. The annual inflation rate is probably three to four times the official figures, which put it at 7 to 9 percent per year. In order to sustain the official numbers, Néstor had to replace the head of the national statistical office, a technician who apparently lacked sufficient mathematical imagination. In August, La Nación reported that the Argentine national statistical institute has ceased publishing monthly industrial activity estimates altogether, so bad were the numbers for the previous month.

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, Canada and elsewhere of many qualified professionals. Although there is a mood of generalized relief, at the same time there is considerable uncertainty as to whether the current model will provide sustained economic development. Perhaps that is why Cristina Kirchner's campaign slogan is El Cambio Recién Empezó, "The Change Has Just Begun."

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.

Thus, having served Santa Cruz for some years in the Argentine Senate, in 2005 she suddenly decided that it would enhance her career to run for a seat in the Province of Buenos Aires. This huge circumscription lying just outside the federal capital, the city of Buenos Aires, is something of an Argentine version of New York State and America's agricultural Midwest wrapped up into one. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Cristina Kirchner had at least lived as a student in the state she proposed to represent, but she also faced an obstacle Mrs. Clinton never had to confront: Her opponent was the wife of the man who had long controlled the province through a formidable political machine of his own--former president Eduardo Duhalde, whom Cristina now refers to pejoratively as "the godfather." Her victory in the Senate race virtually destroyed Duhalde's twenty-year-old hold over his province, at the same time making her literally the second most important politician in the country, and the obvious successor to her husband.

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 Paris last spring, ostensibly to sign an international human rights accord, she was accompanied by twenty people, including Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana, seven people from the presidential press office, two photographers (one still, one television), three technicians and two directors. Her entourage rented a truck with a satellite antenna so that the visit could be transmitted live to Argentine television. Some estimates put the cost of the visit at $300,000.

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 United States as virtually inevitable, to which she added somewhat cryptically, "Hillary will need us as much as we need her."

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 Argentina from consolidating its recent gains. But no one has a clue, for Cristina has yet to reveal her intentions.

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? Argentina is a very unpredictable country. Over the last few years it has had three retirement systems, three or four judicial systems, and five or more devaluations--depending on how one counts. Much of the country's immediate future depends on matters over which it has little control: commodity prices, interest rates, the course of the dollar and the euro. Meanwhile, the Kirchners so far have displayed little appetite for addressing the issues they can control: improving the country's overall credit standing and relationship with foreign investors, or addressing a rapidly deteriorating physical infrastructure, power shortages and galloping inflation. The lack of solid institutions--exemplified by a neutered congress, subservient courts and a largely oficialista press--encourages people to periodically take their politics into the streets. For example, Kirchner's home province of Santa Cruz was rocked last May by a violent confrontation between the police and striking public school teachers, who were subsequently joined by municipal workers. Today's adoring Argentine masses may be tomorrow's angry Argentine mob.

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 Argentina's President has pushed the country backward toward a semi-authoritarian style of rule. James Neilson (who, though English, has long worked in Argentina as editor of the Buenos Aires Herald) reminds us that Néstor Kirchner has had a fairly easy ride thus far, and has yet to show himself a good pilot in a storm. By leaving early, he avoids that test. Of course, under present arrangements, perhaps he is not really leaving at all.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar emeritus at AEI.

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