The troubled reign of Queen Cristina of Argentina
By Philip Sherwell, Buenos Aires, Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2013
For a president accustomed to adulation at carefully-orchestrated rallies in the land of Eva Peron, the demonstration broadcast on national television will not have been welcome.
When Cristina Kirchner’s name was mentioned at Friday’s first anniversary ceremonies for families of a fatal Buenos Aires train crash, there were whistles and boos.
Then, from the crowd gathered on the platforms of the capital’s rundown Station 11, where 51 people died in an accident blamed on railway underfunding, came the angry chants of “daughter of a whore”.
Just 15 months ago, the Argentine leader was basking in the afterglow of a landslide victory, but her popularity has flagged dramatically as the economy has floundered.
And so ahead of mid-term elections that will shape her political future, she has once again turned to her favourite distraction from domestic difficulties—Argentina’s claim to the Falklands.
The islands’ 1,619 registered voters will next month be asked whether they wish to remain a British overseas territory, in a referendum which Downing Street and the Falklands’ inhabitants hope will counter Mrs Kirchner’s demands for negotiations with London on sovereignty.
No-one doubts that the verdict will be a resounding “yes” from the residents of the wind-swept archipelago that sits 300 miles off Argentina but has been part of the British crown since 1833.
There is just as overwhelming agreement in Argentina that Las Malvinas, as the islands are called in Spanish, are occupied territory. That conviction is hardly surprising, given that claim of sovereignty is drilled into the country’s schoolchildren from the age of five, via patriotic songs in classrooms decorated with maps that depict the Falklands in the Argentine flag of blue and white.
Earlier this month, Mrs Kirchner dispatched Hector Timerman, her foreign minister, to London on a quixotic propaganda mission to promote the cause and wrote an open letter to David Cameron, the prime minister, denouncing British “colonialism”.
Her aides curtly dismiss the referendum as a “media stunt”. The islanders “are implanted settlers who do not have the right to define the territory’s status”, noted Daniel Filmus, a senior Kirchner ally who accompanied Mr Timerman to Britain.
This time, though, her attempts to play the nationalist card to shore up domestic support are falling notably flat, as Argentines struggle with a stagnant economy and one of the world’s highest inflation rates.
"The Malvinas are certainly close to the heart of all Argentines, but the government’s attempt to use the islands as a distraction from its domestic problems, particularly the deteriorating economic situation, is failing," Martin Redrado, the former Central Bank governor, told The Sunday Telegraph in his modern office block in downtown Buenos Aires.
"The Malvinas issue is not going to cover up rising unemployment, lack of investment, high inflation and lacklustre growth."
If anyone knows about Mrs Kirchner’s handling of the economy, it is Mr Redrado. For he quit his old position after a dispute with the president—a showdown that at one stage saw him locked out of his office by police—over her plans to tap the bank’s reserves to pay down the country’s foreign debt.
Indeed, for all Mrs Kirchner’s efforts to stoke nationalist fervour about the islands, what was so striking last week was how remote the cause seemed on the leafy streets of Buenos Aires in the dog days of the southern hemisphere summer.
In the coffee shops and steakhouses of a city that feels as much like Paris, Madrid and Rome as South America, middle-class locals expressed their exasperation over the government’s stranglehold on the economy and shared tips about where to obtain US dollars for foreign trips in the in the so-called “caves” (dens) for illegal currency exchanges.
"It’s an article of faith for Argentines that the Malvinas are our territory, but nobody is interested in this obsessive and inflammatory approach from Kirchner," said Daniel Menendez, 41, a management consultant, as he shared a bottle of the country’s Malbec wine with friends in a Buenos Aires restaurant.
"We know that the reality is that the islanders consider themselves British, they are going to vote to remain British and nothing that is going to alter that.
"She is just whipping this up because the economy is a disaster and it’s an election year. The real problem in this country is not who runs the Malvinas, but how each day, she is making us more like Venezuela under Hugo Chavez."
For working-class Argentines trying to stretch the weekly pay cheque as inflation hits 30 percent, the fate of the islands was also far from their minds.
"Of course, we all support the recovery of the Malvinas, but honestly right now I wish the government would deal with the economy and get prices down rather than all this talk about something we can’t change," said Isabel Benitez, 47, who was walking to her job as a hotel cleaner past the Recoleta cemetery, where Evita—as Eva Peron is universally known—is buried in a marble family tomb. "I’d rather Cristina focussed on running the 23 provinces we already have."
The boos and whistles at Friday’s demonstration about the train crash—which victims’ families blame partly on railway underfunding—were no isolated expression of dissent.
Her left-wing government is also engaged in an acrimonious showdown with their former comrades in public sector unions pursuing wage increases to keep pace with spiralling inflation.
Hugo Moyano, the country’s most powerful union leader, accused the president of “back-stabbing” and described her ministers as “boot lickers” at an angry protest rally last week. And schoolteachers are going on strike this week to push their salary demands.
Mrs Kirchner had a personal taste of the her country’s deepening economic woes last month when she could not take her own presidential jet, a $40 million Boeing 757 known as Tango One, on an overseas trip for fear it might be seized at the request of creditors.
For a famously vain politician dubbed “Queen Cristina” by her critics, that would doubtless have been a mortifying experience. But it would not be a first for a flagship of the Argentine state as the symbol of the country’s Navy, a masted tall-ship, was recently impounded for two months after docking in Ghana.
The vessel was only released after a court ruled that, as a military asset, it was immune from legal action by creditors, although its eventual return to port in Argentina was heralded with rapturous celebrations akin to a great naval victory.
That is indeed as close as Argentina’s much-depleted military will come to any sort of triumph at sea. For despite concerns in some quarters about Britain’s ability to protect the Falklands against a repeat of the 1982 invasion in the wake of defence cuts, the reality is that Argentina’s armed forces are a shadow of their strength in the days of the junta.
Indeed, the Navy destroyer that led the 1982 attack sank at its moorings last month, a demise emblematic of the declining fortunes of a once-proud fleet. Of 70 Navy ships, only 16 are said to be in sailing condition.
With neither the capability nor the desire to mount a fresh military incursion against the islands, the Argentine government has instead resorted to bullying and cajoling to push its claim for the Falklands. Most recently, cruise ship operators that included a stop in Port Stanley on their South Atlantic itineraries were told that they would not be allowed to make calls in Argentine ports.
The Kirchner administration has not just upped tensions with Britain. It has also annoyed America and Israel with overtures to Iran, which already enjoys good relations with Mrs Kirchner’s Latin left-wing allies in Venezuela and Ecuador.
Her government is now reacting to the economic travails by seeking to manipulate the market and massage the numbers. The International Monetary Fund recently censured it for cooking the economic books by delivering distorted data, most notably insisting that inflation is running at about 11 per cent when independent analysts put the figure at nearly three times that rate.
Britain this month joined the US and some other European states in announcing it would vote against loans to Argentina for non-poverty projects at the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank because of the country’s financial malfeasance.
The government printing presses are already working overtime as the money supply increases by an inflation-stoking 40 per cent a year. And the Kirchner administration is expected to embark on a fresh spending spree ahead of legislative elections in October, with increased state subsidies, pensions and government salaries targeted at its key voting blocs—the poor, the public sector and students.
The stakes are high for that autumn vote. Kirchner loyalists, who have the unofficial motto of “Cristina forever”, are hoping that a triumph at the polls for her Front for Victory party will allow them to push for a constitutional amendment to let her run for a third term in 2015.
But those prospects have recently dimmed. A year ago, at the height of her popularity, 69 per cent of voters saw her in a positive light and only 14 per cent negatively. Today those figures have narrowed to a 42 per cent positive rating and 33 per cent negative, according to research by the polling company Poliarquia.
For Mrs Kirchner, who used to be one half of Latin America’s most powerful husband and wife team, it has been a dramatic fall to earth. Her husband Nestor, who died in 2010, first won the presidency in 2003, and she followed with victories in both 2007 and then 2011, when the sympathy vote from his death helped sweep her back into the Casa Rosada (Pink House), Argentina’s presidential palace.
Indeed, when a confidante suggested recently that the she add a dash of colour to her designer wardrobe of “widow’s black”, her response was simple.
"Black brings me luck", she is reported to have declared, saying she had no intention of changing the look. Instead, Mrs Kirchner, who turned 60 last week and whose looks are widely believed to have benefited from cosmetic surgery, appears to be cultivating comparisons with an earlier widowed populist leader—Eva Peron, better known as Evita.
At fiery rallies, she delivers similar nationalist rhetoric in front of images of Evita. But according to a former Kirchner insider, she now also suffers the same delusions of grandeur and power.
"She is a paranoid, arrogant person which in turn hides a deep insecurity," he said. "She’s also a very mistrustful person who surrounds herself with a small cadre of yes men and yes women." "The Casa Rosada operates like a court. She’s the queen surrounded by courtesans who only want to deliver good news." The president is now said to be grooming her son Maximo, a Peronist youth leader, for a future in politics. But she has no immediate heir for office. And thus while the outcome of next month’s referendum on the Falklands is a foregone conclusion, the same cannot be said for the future of the House of Kirchner.