Why you should care
Because you won’t cry for Argentina’s president once you appreciate the political heights she scaled and the drama of her potential fall.
Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and other world leaders.
If “all the world’s a stage,” then to be Cristina Fernández, the president of Argentina, is to be a player in an unusually long-running political telenovela, one replete with intrigue, foul play and power coupling à la House of Cards. As we tune in to her second season — er, term — Fernández is facing a critical test of her leadership. (Spoiler alert: Cristina’s term-limited run on the show will wrap up at this October’s elections.)
Fade in on the 13th floor of a luxury apartment building in Buenos Aires. A crusading prosecutor lies slumped in his bathroom, a bullet to the head and a draft warrant for the president’s arrest in his trash can. The government calls the allegations of murder “garbage,” and the 61-year-old Cristina takes to the airwaves wearing a white pantsuit, sitting in a wheelchair. Her posture and attire carry an unmistakable message: Here sits a powerful leader and a sympathetic victim. And if that weren’t clear enough, Cristina declares that “groups of prosecutors, groups of judges, anonymous informers and also journalists” are out to destroy her.
But hold on. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. For anyone who hasn’t followed the saga of “La Presidenta,” let’s catch you up. Our story opens, just as the Broadway version of Evita does, in “a cinema in Buenos Aires, 26 July 1952.” The outpouring of grief when moviegoers, and the rest of Argentina, learned of the death of Eva Perón, an impoverished actress turned first lady, is hard to exaggerate. Pope Francis, another beloved Argentine, may wash feet, but Evita, who died from cancer at age 33, kissed the syphilitic, touched the leprous and warmed the hearts of millions.
She confronts opponents directly, eschews compromise and never takes vacations.
Fernández, Argentina’s current leading lady, downplays comparisons to her idol, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Like Evita, Cristina, the daughter of a bus driver, initially tethered her ambitions to those of her husband, fellow left-leaning law student Néstor Kirchner. During the military dictatorship that gripped Argentina in the 1970s and early ’80s, the couple practiced law in the southern province of Santa Cruz before she was elected to the local assembly in 1989 and he became Santa Cruz’s governor in 1991.
Unlike Evita, who never held elected office, Fernández, an articulate politician known for aggressively questioning opponents, built her own career as a representative, becoming a national senator in 1995. Five years before Michelle Obama entered the White House, Fernández became an active, high-profile first lady when her husband was elected president in 2003 in the wake of the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. As Argentina’s economy rebounded, she, like Perón, became a combative advocate for the poor, observing that the Evita she identified with was the one “of the hair in a bun and the clenched fist before a microphone.”
Fernández’s persona and style have evolved during her time on the national stage, and when her husband stepped aside to let her compete for — and win — the presidency in 2007, it was time for “La Presidenta.” Invariably costumed in Chanel suits, expensive jewelry and heavy makeup, Argentina’s hyperfeminine leader once confessed, “I like to seduce. I don’t want people to just obey me. I want to convince them.”
Her willingness to engage the public in her personal losses and setbacks — including her husband’s death in 2010 and her treatment for a brain hematoma and the broken ankle that landed her in the wheelchair — have also made her a popular figure. “She combines this vulnerable and relatable side with a tough-woman persona, who is not afraid of confrontation and of calling on people — mostly men,” Manuel Balán, a professor of political science at McGill University, tells OZY.
Indeed, Fernández’s political style in a country still shaped by its machismo culture is notably masculine: She confronts opponents directly, eschews compromise and never takes vacations. Her presidency, also marked by a ferocious energy, has produced a stream of policies and proposals. From welfare programs to price controls, her slate of reforms has endeared her to low-income and rural Argentines and solidified the nation’s middle class — a primary reason she was re-elected by a wide margin in 2011. Her government has also helped Argentina address past human rights abuses and become the first Latin American nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
However, Fernández’s media cocoon within the pro-government newspaper and television channels she controls and her nationalization of key industries have caused many in Argentina’s business community to liken her to the late Hugo Chávez, and lament the nation’s conversion to “Argenzuela.” And while the country’s economy may have recovered from the worst of times, inflation remains high — 40 percent by some estimates — and poverty is still rampant. Her critics, some of whom derogatorily refer to her as “la yegua” (the mare), also point out that despite her populism, Fernández and her family have accumulated a small fortune while in power.
The saga of Alberto Nisman — the slain prosecutor who accused Fernández of conspiring to cover up the role of Iranian officials in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires — is but the latest in a series of corruption scandals plaguing her administration. Even though a judge recently threw out the charges for lack of evidence, the controversy will undoubtedly linger, hurting Fernández’s party’s chances in the next elections.
What then becomes of our leading lady? She has yet to anoint a successor, but whoever it may be, it appears that the Fernández era, and Argentina’s current telenovela, will draw to a close with her presidency. In contrast to Brazil, where Lula successfully transferred his popularity to his protégée, Dilma Rousseff, Kirchner and Fernández “were unable or unwilling to build strong second-line political figures that could act as potential successors,” says Balán, and have consequently “limited the possibilities for the continuation of this national project.”
There’s still a chance that the show will go on, perhaps with a spinoff starring Fernández’s son, or Cristina could make a dramatic return to the stage in four years’ time. Stay tuned.