The death last week of former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner filled Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo with thousands of mourners, similar to other emblematic moments in Argentine history. In 1952, the death of Eva Perón brought out the thronging masses to this legendary square in front of the Casa Rosada (the ‘Pink House’ is the Argentine equivalent of the White House). Even more famous are the weekly marches of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who since 1977 have walked around the square every Thursday wearing white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children who “disappeared” during the Dirty War of 1976-1983. But beyond the outpouring of emotion, Kirchner’s fatal heart attack has left the country in shock, and the current president, Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with a severely weakened presidency and a political future that is now the subject of much speculation.
The Kirchners were called “the presidential couple,” a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that Néstor continued to rule behind his wife’s presidency, especially the economy. She succeeded him as president in 2007 in an electoral landslide, even as he continued to lead the Partido Justicialista, or Justice Party. More importantly, he was the driving force behind kirchnerismo, their eponymous brand of peronismo, a populism with a strong cult of personality and a huge devoted following amongst the poor. The only definition of kirchnerismo on which all the Argentine political pundits can agree is that it centered around the cult of personality of Néstor and Cristina, which is to say that it looks unlikely to survive without Néstor.
During his 2003-2007 presidency, Néstor Kirchner led Argentina out of the economic meltdown touched off by the 2001 debt crisis, and developed a strong following among the poor, human rights organizations, and civic movements. His supporters pointed to his social protection programs, including a rise in pensions and per-child allowances.
The business community, however, was much more critical of Kirchner and was unhappy with his interventionism, a sentiment apparently shared outside Argentina as well: with news of Kirchner’s death, Argentine bonds rose 10 percent in U.S. markets. Other rivals of Kirchner’s attacked him for weakening democratic institutions and for exercising tight control over the media. The media law passed during his wife’s term limited the number of licenses that can be granted to any publisher or outlet, and has widely been seen as an attempt to hobble the conservative press.
Still, the Kirchners had some very powerful admirers in the region, like left-wing heads of state, who over the last decade regarded them as royalty. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales was the first to arrive in Buenos Aires to pay his respect to his late Argentine peer. Morales was followed by the rest of Latin America’s leftist leaders, including Brazil’s “Lula” da Silva and, of course, Hugo Chávez. It was the Kirchners’ relationship with the Venezuelan president that provided the first of many scandals during Cristina’s presidency, a scandal known throughout Latin America as el maletinazo, or “Suitcasegate.”
In 2007, a Venezuelan businessman and amateur rally car driver who lived in Key Biscayne named Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson was caught by Buenos Aires customs officers with $800,000 in cash in his suitcase when he alighted from a jet rented by Néstor Kirchner’s government. The story quickly spread that he was an agent of the Chávez government and the money was one of several friendly donations Chávez made to Cristina’s presidential campaign. Later, Antonini Wilson claimed there had been another suitcase on the plane containing $4,200,000, a gift to Cristina’s campaign from the PDVSA, Venezuela’s government-run oil company, which he said was confirmed by members of Kirchner’s cabinet and the vice president of PDVSA in Argentina. Accepting donations from a foreign government is a crime under Argentine law, but the Kirchners spun the scandal as nonsense overblown by an “imperialist” U.S. government opposed to the Kirchner agenda of social progress.
The next presidential elections are in 2011, and Néstor was presumed to be the Partido Justicialista candidate, even as word of his heart trouble compelled the party to consider other candidates, including the incumbent Cristina. But without her husband’s adept and indefatigable behind-the-scenes politicking, the sharks are circling Cristina. Now that Néstor is gone, former allies of his such as Daniel Scioli, governor of the powerful Buenos Aires province, may well step into leadership positions.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may be down, but it is a mistake to count her out, for she has already started sending signals that she is not in a conciliatory mood. Faced with the option of hardening her kirchnerista stance or forging new alliances, she has chosen the former. By choosing to have her husband’s state funeral in the Casa Rosada, rather than the Congress as is customary, she deprived her political rivals of an opportunity to share the limelight and mourn before a bigger audience. She told several opposition leaders not to bother coming.
The biggest threat to Cristina de Kirchner’s presidency, however, is no rival, but the soaring inflation, currently Argentina’s highest in two decades. If in the wake of Néstor’s death Cristina cannot ride the emotional outpouring for kirchnerismo all the way back into the Pink House, perhaps the Kirchners’ son, auspiciously named Máximo, will become the torch-bearer for his parents’ dynastic ambitions.