Photo courtesy of Presidencia de la República del Ecuador
Americas / Argentina

Don’t Cry for Me Argentina

On November 18, 2013 the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, returned to work after a six-week leave of absence following an emergency surgery to remove a blood clot in her brain. This polarizing and once-all powerful leader has dominated Argentine politics with a populist zeal comparable to the country’s beloved political legend, Eva Perón. However, Cristina’s obstinacy in her protectionist policies, despite the changing world markets, has caused a steady decline in her popularity as crime rates rise and economic growth stagnates. Following her absence, Cristina is now returning to a very different government, one where she is politically weakened and facing the harsh reality of the end of her reign over an economically crumbling Argentina.

The Kirchners have monopolized Argentine politics for over a decade with their tag-team approach to the presidency. Cristina’s husband, Néstor Kirchner, gained recognition through his affiliation with the Peronist party and endorsement by former president, Eduardo Duhalde, to secure a victory in the 2003 presidential elections. During his four-year term, Néstor consolidated power through popular legislative actions that allowed Argentine military officials to be charged for human rights abuses committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” and economic policies that brought growth to the then struggling economy. However, corruption scandals, an energy crisis, and high inflation during his last year in office caused him not to seek reelection and instead support his wife’s candidacy as a way to maintain his dominance over the presidency. Cristina had established herself as a leader of Néstor’s newly founded Peronist party, Front for Victory, and a growing political influence when she defeated her opponent in a high-profile election for senator to the politically important Buenos Aires province. This victory insulated her from claims of inexperience during the presidential election and, in 2007, Cristina succeeded her husband, winning 45% of the vote and becoming the first female elected president of Argentina.

However “Queen Cristina,” as she has been nicknamed by her multitude of critics, has not enjoyed the same popularity as her husband and, for most of her time in office, has presided over a deeply divided Argentina sinking further into economic collapse. Following her 2007 election, Cristina’s government imposed a new tax system to significantly increase export taxes on grains in an attempt to control Argentine food prices. This was met with large-scale strikes and protests by farmers’ unions throughout the country, causing a decline in both her and her husband’s popularity and dividing the country among those who supported the government and those who advocated for the farmers. Still, a fragmented opposition and a booming economy allowed the Kirchners to rebound from their political setback, and in the 2011 presidential elections Néstor was regarded as the likely candidate. However, his sudden death in October 2010 triggered widespread sympathy for Cristina who ran in his place and was reelected for a second term with 54 percent of the vote and a reclaimed majority of her party in Congress.

Since her providential reelection, Cristina has enjoyed largely unchallenged political power because her party’s majority in Congress enables her to easily push through policies. This has fostered her transformation into an authoritarian leader whose out of touch government has isolated itself both domestically and internationally. Cristina has remained intransigent in her extravagant social spending programs as a tactic to maintain her popularity among the poor and her adherence to Peronist policies. However, without a strong world market for farm exports to support the programs, Cristina’s administration abandoned all common sense and began lying to the public about inflation rates. Economists independent of the Argentine government estimate the true current annual inflation rate to be 25 percent, the highest it’s been since 1991 and more than double the official rate released by the government. To make matters worse, beginning in early 2012 the government imposed strict price controls on goods, and restricted the public sale of dollars to stem the outflow of foreign currency as a way to insulate the government’s eroded foreign-currency reserves following its expropriation of Repsol’s controlling stake in YPF, the country’s main oil company. This has not only created an enormous black market in which a dollar currently commands nearly 10 pesos while the official exchange rate remains at 5.9 pesos, but is also the driving force behind the country’s growing energy deficit.

The sustained turmoil under Cristina has caused many Argentines to lose faith in their government and take to the streets in protests outside the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in the capital of Buenos Aires. However, to the joy of many disillusioned Argentines, Cristina’s leave of absence forced her to abandon campaigning for mid-term congressional elections, and her allies suffered heavy losses in the October 27 vote. As a result, Cristina’s party had its majority in Congress reduced. This not only put an end to concerns that she might try to amend the constitution to allow her to run for a third term in office, but also significantly weakened the President’s political monopoly and, for many, has marked the beginning of the end of the Kirchner era.