“She had an elegance, a beauty, a warmth . . . and she loved having her picture taken.” That’s how famed photographer Platon described Argentinean President Cristina Fernández after taking her portrait for The New Yorker in 2009. Vanity, after all, is one of the politician’s defining traits. And it extends to everything from her sumptuous wardrobe, crafted by a personal fashion designer, to her unlimited political ambition.
Fernández, first elected in 2007, secured a second term in office last year with 54 per cent of the vote. It wasn’t her plan to become president again. But Néstor Kirchner, her husband of 35 years and the previous head of state, who planned to come back to succeed her, died suddenly of a heart attack on Oct. 27, 2010. The other half of the so-called “presidential marriage” suddenly found herself seeking re-election as candidate of the Peronist, social democratic Justicialist Party (PJ). Fernández, well aware that a wave of sympathy after her husband’s death played a role in her re-election, continues to wear only black, constantly evoking his memory in public speeches. In the face of criticism over the government’s handling of a train crash that killed 51 people in Buenos Aires, she said last month she couldn’t possibly be insensitive to the pain of the victims’ families. “I know what death and pain are,” she said. “I need you all to hug me tight. Because the one who used to hold me is no longer here.”
Fernández was never just the woman behind the man. When Kirchner took office, she was his closest adviser. Together, the duopoly has been running the country since 2003. But the Fernández period, which was marked first by economic recovery, has lately come to be known for skyrocketing inflation, a growing wealth gap, rifts with neighbouring countries, and distrust of the government. Growing discontent was recently met with an attempt to ramp up patriotic fervour by reigniting the old Falkland Islands dispute with Britain—right on time for the 30th anniversary of a botched military invasion by Argentina’s dictators.
The new fight over the Falklands helps distract from some pretty ugly economic truths. Last month, The Economist announced it would actually stop using Argentina’s government inflation data. In a scathing article entitled “Don’t lie to me Argentina,” the magazine complained that the government has for years been publishing data that “almost nobody believes.” The story goes back to early 2007, when the Fernández administration intervened in the Statistics and Census Institute (INDEC) as its data had begun showing ballooning inflation. By many accounts, INDEC’s figures now underestimate inflation by as much as 50 per cent, while journalists quote a “popular inflation” index instead of official data, which they get from private consulting firms. The government has punished these firms with stiff fines for daring to contradict its numbers.
Economics was Kirchner’s, not Fernández’s, forte. She relies heavily on long-time Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno, whose policies are questioned by pretty much everyone but the government. Moreno was involved in the intervention into INDEC data. His attempts to protect national businesses by limiting imports have recently come under fire; among other things, last month the Chamber of Pharmacies warned it is running out of cancer- and AIDS-treating drugs, blaming protectionist government policies. Moreno’s nationalism has found a new outlet of late: he’s one of the most outspoken officials on the Falklands issue.
Fernández’s strength and main source of popularity has been her commitment to human rights policies and social programs. Army generals who participated in the 1970s-era dictatorship have been stripped of their legal immunity, and she has successfully tabled legislation benefiting pregnant employees, workers without access to pension plans, and the unemployed with large families to feed. This is her Peronist side, the type of populism she learned from the charismatic president Juan Domingo Perón, and his equally popular wife, Evita. But according to some she’s far from representing Perón’s ideals. Sergio Acevedo, a former governor of Santa Cruz who retired in 2006 after a public fallout with Fernández and Kirchner, asserts Kirchnerismo is “very far” from Peronism. “[They differ] in every major policy. Energy, transportation, health, education.” Kirchnerismo, says Acevedo, is no more than “a political machine driven by self-interest.”
Despite Fernández being the omnipresent face and voice of Argentina for almost a decade, her past remains in part a mystery. “They were both secretive,” says Alejandra Boldo, an Argentinean journalist. What is known is that she was born in 1953 in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province, to a middle-class family. A brilliant student and orator, she attended law school in La Plata in the 1970s, where she became a left-wing Peronist militant and met Kirchner. The would-be power couple moved to Santa Cruz, in southern Argentina, following the 1976 military coup, and there began their political ascent. Their success was mesmerizing: both were elected every time they ran for office; the only setback came in 2009 when Kirchner, heading the PJ’s congressional list, lost the party’s Buenos Aires seat to the opposition.
Fernández was first elected to Congress as a deputy for Santa Cruz in 1989. She was later a deputy and a senator for Buenos Aires, and served until 2007 when she stepped down for her presidential campaign. As a politician, she was so divisive and combative that even her own party once expelled her from its ranks, says José Ángel Di Mauro, director of Parlamentarios magazine and author of her unauthorized biography. “It used to be both of them making decisions, which was already bad,” he says. “Now it’s worse. It’s only her running the show.”
But it’s not only her. There is the princeling, Máximo Kirchner, her eldest son and now seen as his mother’s closest adviser. The 35-year-old leads a group of young Peronist militants, none older than their late 30s. In last year’s elections, the group secured 11 seats in Congress, reportedly helped by the president, who instructed her party to place the organization’s members at the top of voting lists. The government has appointed a few of the group’s members to key positions, including the official news agency, Telam.
A feminist hero for some—she was, after all, the first woman ever to be elected president in Argentina—and a loathed populist for others, Fernández remains controversial. Some compare her to the iconic Evita Perón, but Di Mauro dismisses the idea. “She would never say this out loud,” he says, “but she doesn’t think of herself as Evita. She thinks she’s better than her.”