Power, grief forged Argentine leader's character

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2011 3:55 PM
Power, grief forged Argentine leader's character

There is a before and after to Cristina Fernandez, the combative Argentine leader likely to win a landslide re-election victory on Sunday.

Following her husband Nestor Kirchner's successful turn as president, Fernandez was vexed by one crisis after another. Powerful agricultural interests lined up against her tax increases. Financial analysts predicted imminent economic collapse. Most people polled disapproved of her leadership, and secret U.S. Embassy cables repeated speculation that she might not even finish her term.

Then Kirchner, her nearly lifelong collaborator, died of a heart attack last Oct. 27.

An outpouring of sympathy turned his funeral into a national catharsis, and Fernandez changed her tone.

She left behind the "all or nothing" rhetoric she and her husband had wielded against their enemies and presented herself as a president for all Argentines.

Before, she would confront rivals with both index fingers extended, jabbing the air.

After her husband's death, her face softened in grief. She shelved her reflexive sarcasm and called on allies to show moderation.

All the while, Fernandez proved to doubters that she could rule without the aid of her power-broker husband.

Her enemies hoped and allies feared that the widow would fall apart without Kirchner's constant support. Instead, the economy kept booming and Fernandez introduced more social programs that helped reduce poverty. Her approval ratings soared to 70 percent this month.

If polling trends hold, she could receive more votes than her six remaining challengers combined, becoming the first female president in Latin America to be re-elected. Fernandez, 58, might even approach the 60 percent victory margins twice achieved by her populist hero, President Juan Domingo Peron.

She may win enough votes in Congress to regain the control she lost in 2009 as Argentina's leading news media lined up against her.

"We've never thought of retreating, or compromising, or weakening the government ... I took a stand and said fine, if they kick me out, that it be for something I believe in and do, and not for something I didn't feel like doing," Fernandez told Sandra Russo, whose authorized biography, "La Presidenta," came out during the re-election campaign.

Since she almost never takes questions from reporters, the book has become one of the most revealing documents available about her state of mind.

A Peronist from birth and a nationalist to the core, Fernandez came of age between the Argentine dictatorships of 1966-1973 and 1976-1983, plunging into politics even when her party was banned. Her uncle was shot to death by police who said they mistook him for a leftist guerrilla.

She married Kirchner, a fellow Peronist Youth activist, just before the strongman Peron returned from exile and was elected a third time in 1973. Once a hero both to left and right, Peron secretly permitted the persecution of his young leftist supporters by plainclothes police, a campaign that became official and spread out of control after he died less than a year later.

Soon, a far more brutal junta was in power, and one of their former roommates was among those kidnapped, never to be seen again. Their families burned all their books with any leftist connections, and the Kirchners fled to his hometown in remote Patagonia, where they quietly plotted future campaigns as the military's death toll soared into the thousands.

"Everything that I remember of politics, since I was a little girl, has to do with violence," she told her biographer.

Speeches have been Fernandez's weapons of choice, sharpened as a lawyer, campaign manager, congressional representative and then senator. Sarcastic to her friends, withering to her enemies, often strident, always passionate, she seemed to relish each chance to rally partisans for a confrontation.

"What irritates people about Cristina isn't that she's a woman; it's the woman she is. Excessive. She shows too much, of too many qualities," Russo writes.

An unauthorized biographer, Silvina Walger, summed up the critics' feelings, calling her "an extremely authoritarian woman, bitter, arbitrary."

Despite such impressions, many Argentines now consider Fernandez the politician most capable of maintaining the country's red-hot economy, one of the fastest-growing in the world. Many well remember the devastating 2001 collapse, and credit the Kirchners for the rebound.

While some economists warn that high inflation and public spending are unsustainable, Fernandez has invested heavily in rebuilding industrial capacity destroyed by a privatization and foreign-debt binge in the 1990s and the world-record default that resulted. She's also brokered deals with multinational oil and mining companies to create new sources of revenue and energy.

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As Election Day approached, Fernandez shrewdly used much of the new wealth and other tools to consolidate support.

She appealed to lower-income Argentines with anti-poverty social programs, including a hugely popular $3 billion effort that transfers cash to families with children who stay in public school. Rather than work with a leftist rival in Congress, she claimed the cash transfer idea as her own and decreed its creation.

She also pleased many in this sports-mad country by spending millions to provide "football for everyone" on state television, wresting a major profit stream from the cable franchise of Grupo Clarin, the media conglomerate that has been one of her most vocal opponents.

She catered to her leftist base by supporting human rights trials against hundreds of dictatorship-era officials and legalizing gay marriage.

Kirchner was by her side during nearly all her battles. They constantly debated strategy, plotted their next move. They had two children together: Maximo, who handles the family's real estate business, and Florencia, who gave up film school in New York to support her mother this year.

"From the moment I met him until he died, Nestor made me laugh," Fernandez told Russo.

When he died, Fernandez and her opponents were surprised to see vast numbers of supporters turning to her side, begging her to keep putting government resources at the service of the people. For a country still captivated by Peron and his wife Evita, who died of cancer a year before Fernandez was born, the historic echoes were impossible to miss.

In a matter of days, Fernandez's ratings flipped from negative to positive.

Argentine pundits had long suspected Kirchner planned to take back the presidential sash from his wife in this year's elections. Now, it's up to Fernandez to keep the couple's project alive.


Michael Warren can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/mwarrenap

(This version CORRECTS that 6 instead of 7 other candidates)