by Louise Belfrage
News Editor, The WIP
There were no people celebrating in the streets of Buenos Aires when Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner won the presidential elections two weeks ago. In fact, the otherwise ear-splittingly noisy city was strangely quiet that evening. Friends visiting me from Europe were astonished: “She is the first elected woman president. Why aren’t people running around outside cheering? She won with a great margin!”
True, but nonetheless, the always-crowded Plaza de Mayo was empty that night. No one was there except for the usual scores of doves flying about.
The Campaign Plan Was I’m The About-To-Be Next-President
Why was there so little enthusiasm? Argentina’s first lady confirmed her intention to run for president less than four months before the elections, on July 2nd. Before that, the national media had speculated excessively as to whether the president, her husband, Néstor Kirchner, was going to step down to give her the opportunity to run. In September, The WIP published an article analyzing Cristina’s career and the path by which she had come as far as she had.
One reader of that article commented:
“I would not compare Hillary with Cristina except that they are both strong, ambitious women with a cause. I am not so sure that Cristina is out to help the country as a whole. Crime is a major issue and food and clothing are up at least 20%, not to mention the increase in the cost of medications in the last few months. Inflation is a big problem. As you said, economic instability and corruption have always been an issue, but it would be so nice to see that change!"
Another reader’s perspective on the First Lady was more sour:
“Unlike Mrs. Clinton, Cristina did not make it on her own merits. The constitutional right to primaries is not being followed in Argentina and candidates are "fingered" by those in power. Cristina is the perfect example."Cristina simply ignored all critics. She launched her campaign at a rally in La Plata on 19th July, declaring that she would “continue the work” of her husband, but as is usual for her, she revealed no specific goals she wanted to pursue, much less how she might plan to achieve them. She then spent most of her time before the election abroad, visiting Spain, Austria, Germany, Mexico and USA, trying to promote foreign investment in Argentina. In this way, she cleverly avoided her critics. She gave very few interviews, participated in no political debates and eluded any confrontations with the other candidates.
"We don't know what plans she has. She hasn't said anything," said former economy minister and rival candidate Roberto Lavagna, who came third in the elections with 17% of the votes. As political analysts remarked, Cristina ran her campaign as if she had already won, and she did so successfully.
In her victory speech after the presidential election, with her husband standing at her side, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner declared that she felt "an important responsibility for my gender." She continued,
"We have won amply. But this, far from putting us in a position of privilege, puts us instead in a position of greater responsibilities and obligations. I'm part of a generation that grew up in a country in which nobody could say anything, so we value this in a very special way."
According to a non-Argentine reporter, "Supporters jumped up and down and embraced one another. 'I’m so excited,' screamed Maria Isabel Francia, a 50-year-old street merchant. 'Cristina is going to pull us out of poverty!'
Most of the news coverage of the former First Lady has focussed on her glamorous looks, her designer clothes and her aggressive, highly combative speaking style. Her opponents continued to claim the government unlawfully funded her campaign. Her supporters, on the other hand, see in her a new Evita Perón.
Except for the clothes and the glamour, the resemblances to Evita are few. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was never poor. Now 54 years old, she graduated from law school in La Plata in the province of Buenos Aires. She met Néstor Kirchner at university, and married him in 1975. However, political events in 1976 in Argentina determined the next seven years of both their lives.
The aging Juan Perón had briefly returned to the presidency in 1973, but died within months. His third wife Isabel, the Vice President, had succeeded him in 1974, but a military coup removed her from office in March 1976 and put a junta in charge of the country. The new government repressed opposition and leftist groups using brutal illegal measures (in what is still called the "Dirty War"). Thousands of dissidents "disappeared", as the junta collaborated with other South American intelligence agencies, and with the CIA.
In response, the couple moved away from La Plata to the remote but oil-rich province of Patagonia in the southernmost part of the country. There Mr. Kirchner set up a prosperous legal practice handling property sales. When the junta fell in 1983, Néstor’s political career began. He was first mayor of Rio Gallegos, the capital of the province of Santa Cruz, then became governor of the province. Cristina became a provincial legislator and later became first a national legislator and then a senator.
This power couple is very skilled politically, and both Cristina’s victories, as a senator and now in the presidential elections are proof of that, rather than a sign that Argentina wanted a progressive, female president. Voters wanted a continuation of her husband’s leftist Peronism, during which Argentina has gotten a more stable economy and a growth of 8% per year. Another indication of the couples’ political inclinations was that Kirchner also scrapped laws protecting former military officers from prosecution over human rights abuses during the military regime.
Both Kirchners political support comes mainly from traditional Peronist areas such as rural Argentina and the greater province of Buenos Aires. In most cities and in urban areas the Kirchners lost in popularity, due to embarrassing corruption scandals, a high and still-rising inflation and the winter’s many power cuts. A continued energy shortage is one of the main challenges facing the country.
It is fascinating to compare her with neighboring Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, who won a historic, and much celebrated, victory in January 2006.
Chile’s Unusual President: A Victim of Torture Rises to Power
Michelle Bachelet was introduced to the rough side of politics at 21: in 1972, when Salvador Allende’s socialist government was losing power in Chile, Allende invited Michelle’s father, Alberto, a Brigadier General of the Air Force and military staff to join his administration. He was given charge of the distribution of provisions. When Augusto Pinochet came to power in a September 1973 coup (which Michelle witnessed from a rooftop in Santiago), Pinochet accused General Bachelet of being a traitor to his country; refusing exile, he was tortured and died of a heart attack. Bachelet and her mother were brought to a notorious secret detention center in Santiago, where they were separated and submitted to interrogation and torture. Family friends within the military managed to get them released and sent to Australia, where her brother lives.The family eventually ended up in East Germany, where Bachelet studied medicine (a story similar to that of Angela Merkel, elected Germany’s first woman Chancellor in 2005.) Bachelet had already entered medical school at the University of Chile in 1970, with one of the highest scores in the university admission test. She chose to study medicine at the urging of her father. She has said it was "a concrete way of helping people cope with pain" and "a way to contribute to improve health in Chile."
In 1979 she returned to Chile but was denied certification to specialize in and practice surgery for “political reasons” so she decided to become a pediatrician. Not until years later, in 1995, did her political career begin when she became a member of the socialist party’s central committee. Two years later she graduated from Defense Studies for the Latin American military in Washington DC. Her real political breakthrough came in 2002 when the previous president, Ricardo Lagos, promoted her from Minister of Health to Minister of Defense. This made her head of the institution that bore responsibility for her father’s death – needless to say, a position of great symbolic value to her.
A moderate Socialist, she campaigned on continuing Chile's free market policies and also on increasing social benefits to reduce the hardships of the poor. She was never a typical candidate, however: a surgeon, pediatrician and epidemiologist with studies in military strategy, she is a separated mother of three and a self-described agnostic. This certainly set her apart in a predominantly conservative Catholic country. Nevertheless, she won with 53.5% of the vote. When she was sworn in as president in March 2006, she promised to work to lessen that gap between rich and poor and increase the status of women in Chile, which has serious problems with discrimination against women in workplaces.
Wildly popular at first, her approval ratings have now dropped, as poverty has been hard to remedy, and prosperity is hard to maintain. However, she remains committed to fulfilling her campaign promises.
Nepotism Is Not New to Latin America
A few years ago in Peru, Keiko Fujimori, the 32-year-old daughter of disgraced ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori, was elected congresswoman of the Peruvian Congress. She obtained the highest vote nationwide. Another example is Martín Torrijos, son of the former dictator of Panama, who was elected president in 2004. And there are many more examples. In Cuba, Raúl Castro is the one most likely to continue his brother of Fidel’s one-party communist rule. In Venezuela, apart from President Hugo Chávez, the most influential politician in the government is his brother Adán.
As of December 10th, Argentineans will be governed by their former first lady. She already knows her way around the Casa Rosada very well. What remains to be seen is how she will use her experience and her husband.