Argentine young turn to politics to serve leader

AP News
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Posted: Oct 18, 2011 6:52 PM
Argentine young turn to politics to serve leader

A determined young crowd advances down the avenue despite a steady drizzle, beating drums, setting off fireworks and handing out pamphlets. They aren't lashing out in anger, like the unemployed youths of Europe, Chile's student marchers or America's "Occupy Wall Street" activists.

These young Argentines like their government, and want it to become even more powerful.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is expected to win re-election by a landslide Sunday. Polls suggest she could come away with a first-round majority and consolidate her support in Congress against a splintered opposition. Key to the victory is her conquest of a generation that wasn't even born during country's bloody 1976-1983 dictatorship, whose legacy has shaped nearly every aspect of her political views.

She has won over the new generation by encouraging them to try to change their world, just as activists of her generation thought they could do before Argentina's last military coup silenced them and unleashed a bloodbath that officially killed 13,000 people and set the country's democracy back for years.

"The whole world is shocked by how young people are getting involved in politics in Argentina," the president said after the chants of flag-waving supporters repeatedly interrupted one of her final campaign appearances. "No, they shouldn't be shocked in any way, because when utopia is reborn, you'll always find young people there."

Pre-election polls show the strongest support for Fernandez, 58, rests among two cohorts: people who, like Fernandez, were in their early 20s in 1976 and saw firsthand how armed conflict gave way to state-sponsored terror, and people who came of age during the next terrible blow to Argentine society, the 2001 financial crisis that all but destroyed the country's economy.

Keeping fresh the memories of these two years has been essential to the model of governing that she and her late-husband Nestor Kirchner began when he was elected in 2003. She invokes these dark chapters in nearly every campaign speech, summoning up old enemies and shaping them into new threats while passionately promising that her government will protect the country against them. Kirchner did this too, before he suddenly died of a heart attack last October.

"With the 2001 collapse, the message to our generation is that we had to sacrifice," said Sebastian Zabalia, 30, a marketing graduate whose Militancia Kreativa brings together artists in support of the president. "Just as we were joining the work force, they told us, 'All the dreams that you have are going to end. Don't dream anymore.' And then two years later a guy shows up who tells us, 'I've come to propose to you a dream.' And he didn't stop there. It's inevitable that you see yourself getting involved in this project."

Argentina has now enjoyed its longest stretch of democratic rule since a series of coups began in 1930, and one of its most sustained periods of economic growth. Spending enormously to encourage consumption and keep the economy growing at nearly 8 percent annually, Fernandez's government says it has reduced unemployment from 20 percent in 2003 to 7 percent today, and poverty from 54 percent to 8 percent this year.

Private economists question the numbers, but it's clear that Argentina has come back strong under the Kirchners, thanks to a combination of high commodity prices and classic Keynesian spending. They encouraged unions and businesses to negotiate higher salaries, established cash transfer payments for each child in low-income families, raised pensions for retirees and dedicated millions in subsidies to keep transportation and public services affordable.

The Kirchners' leadership marks a huge contrast from their predecessors, who lacked the capacity to meet social and economic challenges, said Leandro Lopina, a 29-year-old activist. But the Kirchners also have made a point of recruiting and promoting younger Argentine followers, which in turn has helped restore their faith in politics.

"This is the first political project that opened its doors to young people, and not just to give them a little corner to do useless things, but to really include them in at the center of political action," Lopina said. "I believe that we young people are the guarantee that this can continue and improve, because there are obviously pending challenges."

The most loyal of Fernandez's supporters belong to a movement called "La Campora," named after President Hector Campora, who was elected in March 1973 as the personal delegate of former President Juan Peron to end the previous military junta's 18-year-old ban on Peronist activities. Campora stepped aside months later to make way for Peron's brief return to power.

Fernandez's son Maximo Kirchner founded La Campora, and she has leaned on the group more than ever since her husband's death, to provide support at campaign appearances and begin to challenge the Peronist party's old guard for elected positions.

"Cristina surrounds herself with the Campora because she doesn't trust anyone _ not the politicians, not her own ministers. That's why her son provided her with this 'praetorian guard' that she thinks protects her," said political analyst Jorge Giacobbe, whose polling firm, like others, predicts she'll win in the first round.

One Campora member manages the state-owned Aerolineas Argentinas. Another was recently selected to represent government stockholders on the board of Techint, a powerful conglomerate. About 20 others were included at Fernandez's request on ruling party candidate lists.

"Our real fight begins the day after the election," said Andres Larroque, 34, secretary general of La Campora and candidate for Congress, as hundreds of activists prepared to march through the capital. "That which we recovered, that which Juan Peron founded, to which Evita gave her spirit, which Nestor recovered and that we now live thanks to Cristina obviously will be attacked again by those anti-patriotic interests. We need to become guardians of the legacy of Nestor and soldiers for Cristina."

Analysts believe Fernandez's young supporters could play a key role over the next four years.

"After the elections, the succession fight begins within Peronism," said Mariel Fornoni, with the consulting firm Management & Fit. "New internal disputes will emerge. The challenge of politics is how to hold onto power. That's why she values loyalty so highly."

The Kirchners were young activists themselves as they cut their political teeth in the university city of La Plata.

Their cause was the leftist Peronist Youth party, and some of their comrades were directly involved in armed resistance to the 1960s junta.

La Campora is completely different. It's created by the government, with functionaries and taxpayer money and no grass roots movement to back it up, said Marcelo Larraquy, who has written several books about the last 40 years of Argentine youth movements.

Those youths challenged authority, while these profit from it, he said, adding, "It's top-down and unquestioningly repeats a script."

But other young Argentines who lack any personal connections also advocate for Fernandez's government, many using social networks to express their views. Many were directly affected by the social breakdowns of 2001, when thousands of people hit the streets to protest the currency devaluation and loan defaults that caused soaring unemployment.

"Throw them all out," was their battle cry, and politicians seemed incapable of responding.

A young woman who goes by the username "La Pipi" on her popular pro-government blog said she supported Fernandez because the Kirchners rescued the country from economic collapse. She refused to identify herself because she works for a major company and said she fears getting fired for using Twitter and her blog to challenge the opposition. She also helped to create a Facebook page where people can contribute wish lists for a second Fernandez term.

"I live in a neighborhood of poor housing and many small factories," the 36-year-old explained as she recruited other bloggers at a science fair. "And I saw how people lowered their blinds and the streets filled with young people taking drugs due to the 2001 crisis. And later I saw that people's blinds began lifting again, and the kids aren't out there anymore, but are now going to work in the factories."