Cristina Kirchner’s long goodbye

President Kirchner waves in front of a portrait of her late husband at Government House, October 2015. Photo: Natacha Pisarenko / AP / PA Images

The sun is dipping behind the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner emerges to make her final speech as president of Argentina. It is 9th December 2015, and the Plaza de Mayo echoes with chants and songs as Kirchner, an enthusiastic public speaker, stands alone waiting to begin. “Si la tocan a Cristina, qué quilombo se va a armar!” sings the crowd, with glee: “If they mess with Cristina, there’s going to be trouble.”

As Kirchner, known in Argentina simply as Cristina, begins to speak, silence descends on the Plaza. “Dear compatriots, can you hear me?” she cries. “I want you to know that I can hear you too. I hear you, and I always will.” The crowd roars its approval. Among the audience are representatives of political movements from across Argentina including thousands of members of La Cámpora, the Kirchnerist youth wing led by Máximo, Kirchner’s burly, taciturn son. Blue-and-white Argentinian flags flap alongside banners bearing slogans including “Cristina 2019”, “Gracias!” and “No Fue Mágia” – “It Wasn’t Magic”, a phrase used repeatedly by Kirchner about her administration’s achievements.

This is the last day of Kirchner’s eight-year rule, which followed on from the four-year presidency of her husband, Néstor, who stepped aside in 2007 to let his wife run for election.

The plan, it is widely believed, had been for the couple to alternate in power, obeying the rule limiting presidents to two consecutive terms, while extending the “K” era indefinitely. But Néstor died in 2010, felled by heart failure at the age of 60. With her husband gone, and despite an “ultra-K” faction pushing, in 2011, for a constitutional amendment to allow her to run a third time (a scheme they dubbed “Cristina eterna” – eternal Cristina), Kirchner had no option but to step aside for the 2015 elections.

Her chosen successor as candidate for the Front for Victory (FpV) coalition she led was former Buenos Aires state governor Daniel Scioli. Walking a tightrope between loyalty to Kirchner and asserting himself as his own man, Scioli had a tough few months. He received almost no help from Kirchner during the campaign, who preferred to talk up her own and Néstor’s achievements, barely mentioning Scioli and often ignoring or sidelining him in public.

Even so, Scioli only lost the election by a whisker on 22nd November. The new president would be Mauricio Macri, the centre-right former mayor of Buenos Aires and one-time president of Boca Juniors, one of Argentina’s biggest football teams.

Kirchner addresses supporters at Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, on the eve of her departure from the presidency.  Photo: Maria Eugenia Cerutti / AP/ PA Images

Back in the Plaza de Mayo, Kirchner’s supporters intersperse mocking refrains about the president elect – “Macri, you’re a coward!” – with repeated cries of “Cristina no se va!” – “Cristina will not leave!” But despite the fighting words, the chants have the air of a last hurrah, a heartfelt swansong for an extraordinary era.

 

The last days of Kirchner

Kirchner was never going to go quietly, and hopes for an orderly and dignified handover of power had been swiftly dashed after Macri’s win, when he and Kirchner found themselves unable to agree on what at first seemed like a simple matter: the ceremonial protocol for the handover of the presidential sash and baton. Macri wanted the ceremony to take place in the Casa Rosada, while Kirchner insisted that the handover would take place in Congress or not at all, chiding Macri over Twitter that “The 10th of December isn’t his birthday party. It’s the day he becomes the president of all Argentinians.”

Kirchner was never one to steer clear of confrontation. Allying the country with Iran, Venezuela, Russia and China, she picked up the anti-American thread laid down by the late Néstor and wasted no opportunity to blast the imperialist yanquis. In a 2014 speech, after Argentina was declared to be in contempt of a US court over its failure to settle with holdout creditors – “vulture funds”, as Kirchner preferred to call them – she first claimed to have received death threats from Isis and then, appearing to refer to the US, said: “If anything should happen to me, don’t look to the east: look north.”

Macri, leader of the centre-right PRO party and of the winning coalition, Cambiemos (“Let’s change”), adopted something of an “exasperated dad” attitude to Kirchner’s belligerence at the start of the period between his election victory and becoming president. But by the end of it, his comfy-cardigan image and reasonable-guy demeanour had crashed into Kirchner’s immovable will, and splintered.

“It seems the idea is to fill the transition process with obstacles, and to create as many problems as possible for the new government,” he said. Kirchner, meanwhile, accused him in a barrage of tweets of having telephoned her and lost his temper. “Real authority isn’t achieved via a handover ceremony, or by yelling at a woman,” she wrote with barely concealed glee.

Mauricio Macri is swarmed by reporters in July 2015. Photo: Federico Cosso / Demotix / PA Images

Taking the fight to Kirchner, Macri took out an injunction forcing her to leave office at midnight on 9th December, but since his presidency would not begin until his swearing in at Congress at noon on the following day, Argentina found itself faced with an interim ruler, senate president Federico Pinedo, for the intervening 12 hours. It was an unfortunate situation for a country with a history of irregular, dictatorial and emergency presidents – and for Kirchner, it was an outrage to which she alluded repeatedly in her final speech. “It was very hard to see a president nobody had voted for created by court order,” she said. “It hurt. No Argentinian deserved that.”

But it was Kirchner’s actions in her very last days as president that seemed likely to cause the biggest problems for her rival. In the 17-day window between Macri’s 22nd November win and his 10th December swearing-in, Kirchner put her foot on the gas, racing to tie up loose ends as well as to rush through around a raft of new laws, multiple pay deals and contracts, and hundreds of new appointments. With thousands of La Cámpora militants already installed at jobs in the civil service and state enterprises, the Kirchner administration made haste to add more.

In the 17 days before Macri’s installation in the Casa Rosada, Kirchner appointed 18 new ambassadors – the last two, to Costa Rica and Honduras, on her last day in office. She signed papers on matters as trivial as contracts for the Casa Rosada’s floral arrangements, and as crucial as a decree increasing the 2016 state budget by US$110 million. The rise was in part intended to cover public-sector salaries and energy subsidies: under the Kirchners, domestic bills for electricity, gas and water were kept artificially low, with some households spending little more than the cost of a pack of cigarettes on electricity per month.

“I can’t speak for long – I’m going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight,” she joked during her final speech, referring to Macri’s injunction; according to the newspaper Perfil, she worked on late into the night after her farewell in the Plaza de Mayo, signing papers right up until 11.55 pm.

 

#CallEverythingNestor

As people make their way home after Kirchner’s farewell – “I love you and will always be with you,” she signs off, hoarsely – Lo de Néstor, a Kirchner-themed bar five blocks from the Plaza de Mayo, is packed. The atmosphere is nostalgic and even slightly euphoric in this end-of-an-era moment, as friends and comrades gather in groups around the small tables, hemmed in by shelves crammed with Kirchnerist knick-knacks. On the walls, images of Néstor and Cristina alternate with photos of Juan Perón and his first wife, Evita – the latter a touchstone for Cristina, who often adopted Evita-esque poses, and who installed two huge silhouettes of her heroine’s face on a building on Buenos Aires’s central thoroughfare, Avenida 9 de Julio.

Despite her husband’s lack of obvious political charisma, Kirchner worked to sanctify him as a latter-day Peronist icon”

Juan Perón, a former military general, was elected president of Argentina three times between 1946 and 1973, with his second term interrupted by a 1955 coup and the third by his death in 1974. He left behind the party he had founded in 1945, which became a powerful political clan underpinned by loyalty to its icons, Juan and his first wife, Eva, or “Evita” as she was known. Perón’s second wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, succeeded him in power: but thanks to unwavering adulation both inside and outside Peronism, it was Evita, who died of cancer at 33, who became and remains an unparalleled political icon in Argentina.

As well as paying homage to Evita in countless ways, including installing her image on the AR$100-peso banknote, Kirchner spent considerable time and effort on tending the image and memory of her late husband. Despite Néstor’s gawky appearance and lack of obvious political charisma, Kirchner worked to sanctify him as a latter-day Peronist icon. She referred to him regularly in her speeches after his death – most often as simply “Él” (“He”) – and she and her supporters have named dozens of places and projects after him, all over Argentina. They include bus stations, schools, airports, bridges, roundabouts and underpasses – and, in 2014, a nuclear power station. A major new hydroelectric dam, one of two under construction in the Kirchners’ home province of Santa Cruz, using Chinese investment, has also been 
named Presidente Néstor Kirchner, helping to spur an internet meme, #PoneleNestorATodo – #CallEverythingNestor.

A famous image of Néstor takes pride of place on the largest expanse of wall inside Lo de Néstor. The mural depicts the moment on 24th March 2004, on the anniversary of Argentina’s 1976 military coup, when Néstor ordered army chief Roberto Bendini to take down a portrait of General Jorge Videla, the leader of the coup, and president during some of the dictatorship’s bloodiest, most murderous years. In the picture, Néstor’s beaky face is seen side-on, in profile, observing Bendini intently as he removes the portrait from the wall.

A masterstroke of political staging, the image nevertheless represents one of the Kirchners’ most emblematic joint achievements, in which a long-overdue process of “memory, truth and justice” was set in motion by Néstor and carried forward by Cristina. The legal initiative targeted the perpetrators of crimes committed by the 1976-1983 regime, many of whom had enjoyed years of impunity thanks to amnesty laws passed a few years after the re-establishment of democracy. Under the Kirchners those laws were repealed, and as a result more than 1,000 military officers have now been tried for crimes of torture and murder, with more than 500 convicted and sentenced.

Kirchner supporters commemorate her late husband at a rally on the “Day of Peronist Loyalty”, 13th October 2013. Photo: Claudio Santisteban / Demotix / PA Images

This enforced confrontation of the past is only part of the Kirchners’ legacy. Part of a Latin America-wide wave of populist, “post-neoliberal” left-wing leaders that also includes Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, the Kirchners introduced significant expansions in welfare rights, renegotiated the country’s crippling debt and legislated to allow same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

The child benefit they introduced had reached 3.5 million children by 2013 and Argentina’s pension system was first nationalised, then extended to 2.5 million elderly recipients previously excluded for insufficient contributions. Other nationalised companies included the airline Aerolíneas Argentinas, Argentina Water and Sanitation (AySA), and the oil-and-gas giant YPF.

“El Proyecto” (the Project), as the Kirchners called their programme for government, also included tight economic protectionism and rigid currency restrictions. Founded on interventionist economic policies, Kirchnerism arose, says political analyst Sergio Berensztein, as the result of Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse – which was “like Greece but without the support of the European Central Bank, the Troika, or the IMF”. The Kirchners, he says, had the good fortune to take power at the start of a sustained boom in global commodities prices, which allowed them to indulge in high levels of public spending and increase their support enormously from within the state.

Cry for me, Argentina

Kirchner has never been shy of trumpeting the successes of her administration. But the most compelling narrative – and one she returned to again and again – was that of being under attack, besieged on all sides by powerful enemies. In her final presidential speech, she railed against the “persecution and constant harassment” she and Néstor had faced throughout their administration, striving to defeat vested interests in the face of “attacks, harassment, defamation and slander” by “national and international economic and financial corporations”.

For Kirchner, bias on the part of the ‘hegemonic media’ verged on an obsession”

For Kirchner, bias on the part of the “hegemonic media” verged on an obsession – and in the case of one newspaper in particular, Clarín, which turned against her over controversial taxes on agricultural exports, she developed something akin to a blood feud, repeatedly accusing the publication of seeking to overthrow her.

Beginning in 2013, Periodismo Para Todos (PPT) – a current affairs programme on the Clarín Group TV station El Trece, led by charismatic journalist and professional grouch Jorge Lanata – broadcast a series of investigations into the Kirchners’ financial affairs, under the title The Route of the K-Money. The programme uncovered what its producers claimed was a corruption racket headed by one of Néstor Kirchner’s closest associates in Santa Cruz, Lázaro Báez. The two-year PPT investigation looked into what they said were corrupt tendering processes for public-funded and infrastructural projects won, in some cases, by Báez, and into a sophisticated, allegedly related money-laundering scheme, which they said channelled funds though Hotesur, the company that runs the Kirchner family’s hotels in El Calafate, Santa Cruz. Allegations of direct involvement in either scheme by the Kirchners have never been proven – and have been strongly denied by Kirchner – but in 2014, member of Congress Margarita Stolbizer, leader of the left coalition Progresistas, sparked a legal investigation into Hotesur itself. Hotesur has denied charges of money laundering, but admitted to some technical failings in filing its company records.

Other legal problems that may complicate Kirchner’s post-presidency life relate to Alberto Nisman, the state prosecutor found dead in his apartment in January 2014, shot in the head the night before he was to deliver a report to Congress implicating Kirchner in an international cover-up. According to Nisman’s report, Kirchner conspired to conceal Iranian involvement in the deadly 1994 bombing of the AMIA, a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed.

More than a year on, the truth about how 
Nisman died – whether he committed suicide, was murdered, or suffered that peculiarly Argentinian fate of having been “suicided” – has not been satisfactorily established. In one of his first actions as president, Macri ordered the declassification of information by all government departments on anything to do with the matter. And while no one is claiming that Kirchner had any direct part in what may turn out to be Nisman’s murder, the investigation by Macri may uncover troublesome revelations about her government’s dealings with Iran.

 

Macri economics

As Kirchner prepared to fly home on the morning after her exit from power, Macri was arriving at Congress. Following his swearing in and his receipt of the perishing sash and baton he gave his inaugural speech, which contained a raft of generalist pledges to fight corruption and narcotrafficking, to shoot for zero poverty, to foment an “education revolution” and to usher in a new era of dialogue and consensus.

In his first days as president, he quickly set about dismantling the interventionist policies on which the Kirchner economy was founded, cancelling export tax on agricultural commodities, lifting the currency 
restrictions imposed in 2011 and devaluing the peso.

Macri had an energy crisis on his hands as soon as he took power, with thousands suffering power cuts in Buenos Aires at the height of an exceptionally hot summer”

Then, despite all his talk of conciliation and dialogue, Macri and his team sacked 10,000 state workers within a month. They included 600 from the brand new Centro Cultural Kirchner, where dozens of underemployed employees used to stand idle on each of the building’s ten floors, mobbing each new visitor with eager offers of assistance. Of the senate’s 6,000 employees, Macri sacked 
over 2,000.

At the senate, in Congress and in countless other state institutions, the proliferation of ñoquis – “employees” who turn up on the payroll, and nowhere else – is a well-known fact. Despite recognising that in some cases there was over-staffing for nefarious reasons, including the insertion of La Cámpora and other militants into key positions, critics denounced Macri’s action as a political witch-hunt; indeed, vice-president Gabriela Michetti admitted that Kirchnerist militants were being openly selected for removal. Few doubted the need to take a second look at Kirchner’s appointments, yet it seemed like an inauspicious start for a president who had urged, in the name of his coalition, “Cambiemos” (‘Let’s Change’), a different kind of politics.

In his first speech to Congress, Macri was emphatic about the importance of an independent, non-party-political judiciary: “There can be no justice and no democracy without it.” Yet as president, he moved quickly to appoint two new supreme court judges by decree, to the fury of the senate, where the decision would usually have been taken. He also overturned the media law that had been one of Kirchner’s flagship policies, and which had been voted through, using due process, in Congress. “He’s using decrees to establish his power and authority,” said Berensztein. “He probably feels the need to make the most of this honeymoon period while he still can.”

There seems little doubt, in protest-happy Argentina, and with a faltering economy suffering from high inflation, that Macri will face increasing unrest as he attempts to reverse some of the policies established by the previous government. Macri has no shortage of challenges ahead. His plans to cut the subsidies on water, gas and electricity are one possible flashpoint. He had an energy crisis on his hands as soon as he took power, with thousands suffering power cuts in Buenos Aires, at the height of an exceptionally hot summer.

The K contingent, and the left in general, also has the capacity to cause serious problems. When Milagro Sala, a powerful Kirchnerist ally and the leader of the left-wing Tupac Amaru group, was arrested and imprisoned in January 2016, accused of “incitement to violence and turmoil” arising from her group’s month-long occupation of a square in San Salvador in Jujuy province, public outrage quickly swelled – and, more worryingly for the new president, demonstrators mounted roadblock protests across the country.

 

The future of the Ks

Almost two weeks after her departure from the Casa Rosada, Kirchner made a rare informal appearance in December, at the gates of the family home in El Calafate in Néstor’s native Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, 50 miles from the edge of the towering mass of blue ice that is the Perito Moreno glacier. As a few dozen locals turned out to greet her, a group of La Cámpora militants chanted and sang along with the fervour for which they are noted, to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising – a favourite melody for Argentinian chants. “Néstor never left,” they sang. “I carry him in my heart, with Cristina, the soldiers of Perón.” Kirchner waved and smiled, but said nothing.

Many of Kirchner’s supporters hope she will stand for president in 2019: she has a reasonable amount of support, with around a third of the 90 FpV members of Congress and senators falling into the “Cristinista” camp in some way. La Cámpora Congress members include Axel Kiciloff, her former economy minister and political protégé, and her son Máximo. Yet despite Kirchner’s best efforts and her final exertions as president, her powerbase in La Cámpora may not have the stamina it needs to thrive as a political force now it has lost its direct access to public funds.

There may be life in the Kirchners yet, as a political dynasty”

Inside Peronism proper, says Berensztein, alongside the old-school cabals that have long run the party – the Partido Justicialista, formerly known as the Peronist Party – there is a younger generation of talent on the rise, whose ideology is quite different from that of Kirchnerism. He picks out Sergio Massa, Juan Manuel Urtubey and Florencio Randazzo: “These are smart, modern, conservative Peronists. They have a totally different concept of politics from the one that dominated previously. They’re capitalists.”

Meanwhile, despite talk of her return to the political scene in early 2016, sources close to Kirchner are reporting a waning desire, for now at least, to run for president again in 2019. She is likely to want to run for senator in 2017, according to Berensztein, but if there are legal proceedings against her at that time, relating to Nisman, Hotesur or any other case, that will prove impossible. Kirchner’s son Máximo, voted into Congress for the first time in 2015 (his only previous job had been in the family’s hotel business), could perhaps carry the K torch forward, but he is not widely believed to have a natural gift for politics.

But there may be life in the Kirchners yet, as a political dynasty. After Kirchner unveiled a bust of Néstor in the Casa Rosada during her penultimate speech as president, Máximo’s tiny son Néstor Iván, aged two-and-a-half, suddenly shouted out to his grandmother, “Te amo!” “I love you too, Néstor Iván,” said Kirchner, and then to the assembled dignitaries, “I’m worried about him – he loves cameras, and applause.”

As Kirchner considered her next move, President Macri was preparing to welcome President Obama to Argentina in March 2016, the first state visit of a serving US president since Clinton in 1997. Following on from Obama’s state visit to Cuba, the 23rd-24th March Argentina trip coincides with the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice, which marks the 40th anniversary of the 1976 military coup led by Videla.

The dates caused controversy in Argentina: it is widely believed that the US state department knew about preparations for the coup two months before it took place and did nothing to stop it. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel asked Obama to delay the visit by two days to avoid “the 40th anniversary of a military coup in whose national security doctrine the USA had considerable involvement”. A statement released by the US ambassador to Argentina, Noah Mamet, said that the dates were coincidental, a result of the timing of Obama’s Cuba trip.

The trip itself seems almost tailormade to cause irritation and offence to Kirchner, ensconced in her southern Patagonian stronghold. The press release announcing the visit said that it was intended as an opportunity for Obama “to discuss President Macri’s reform agenda and recognise his contributions to the defence of human rights in the region” – the latter being the signature legacy of the Kirchner era, and almost certainly premature as an epithet for Macri’s two-month-old presidency.

Deep in south Argentina, Kirchner’s glacial fury at the visit, the timing and the stated purpose of the meeting can only be imagined. Should Obama find himself suddenly buffeted by a blast of ice cold 
Patagonian wind as he exits Air Force One in Buenos Aires, he might do well, echoing Kirchner, to pause for a moment on the staircase and look to the south.

Claire Rigby (1971-2017) was a writer and editor who dedicated much of her time while living in South America to mentoring young journalists. The Claire Rigby Memorial Fund continues this aspect of her work. To find out more about the fund and those it helps support head here.


 

Update, November 2017:

Allegations of her supposed involvement in corruption have dogged Cristina Kirchner since she left office in December 2015. In May 2016 a federal judge froze US$1 million of her assets while an investigation was launched into an alleged manipulation of the Central Bank’s exchange operations.

On 22nd September 2017 a court found that Alberto Nisman, the public prosecutor who was found dead in January 2014, was murdered. Soon afterwards, in October 2017, Kirchner appeared in court denying that there had been any state involvement in a cover-up relating to the 1994 Jewish cultural centre bombing – claims which Nisman had been about to formally present when he was shot dead in his apartment. Argentinian prosecutors are continuing to investigate Nisman’s claims.

On 9th November 2017 she appeared once more in a Buenos Aires court, this time denying her involvement in money laundering, prompted by the continuing investigation into Hotesur, the company that administers hotels belonging to Kirchner and her family. In a tweet she described the case as a “new chapter of judicial persecution” against her by President Macri.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigations into her conduct in office, Kirchner is currently immune from arrest, having won a senate seat in Argentina’s mid-term elections on 23rd October 2017.

 

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