Argentina’s leader populist, but no longer popular

Latin View

BUENOS AIRES — Things are not going well for Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — only fourteen months after winning re-election by a landslide, barely a week goes by in which she doesn’t do something that raises questions about her political wisdom and emotional stability.

20130113andresLast weekend, Fernández de Kirchner published a long and irate letter on her Facebook page criticizing Oscar-winning actor Ricardo Darín — this country’s most popular actor, and one of the most beloved ones — for telling a show-business magazine that she should reveal the source of her fortune.

In an interview with Brando magazine, Darín had wondered aloud about the sources of the president’s wealth, which according to the daily La Nación has soared by 1,155 per cent, to about $19 million since her late husband Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003.

Fernández de Kirchner’s Jan 6 response to Darín in an angry 22-paragraph letter she published on Facebook — and promoted several times on her Twitter page — lashed out against those who question her honesty, and in turn accused Darín of having been charged and arrested by a judge in 1991 for smuggling a station wagon into the country.

Darín subsequently told reporters that the president had had misrepresented his case, and that a judge had acquitted him of any wrongdoing. But by then, the front pages of Argentina’s largest independent newspapers were exploding with statements of support for Darín from show business stars and leading intellectuals.

Doesn’t the president have more important things to do than respond to a passing comment by an actor in a show-business magazine? many asked. And, more important, shouldn’t the president clear the matter by answering how she managed to multiply her wealth while in office, others wondered.

On Tuesday, a new scandal hit the headlines: the president had leased a British-made Global Express 7000 jet for a trip to Cuba and Asia, to avoid Argentina’s creditors from seizing the presidential plane.

Late last year, a judge in Ghana, responding to claims by Argentina’s bond holders in New York, had seized Argentina’s navy school frigate Libertad. The ship was released months later and arrived Wednesday in Argentina, where the government prepared a massive welcome in hopes of turning an international embarrassment into a political victory.

But Fernández de Kirchner’s troubles go way beyond the latest headlines. Huge pot-banging anti-government demonstrations late last year against government corruption and official currency exchange controls surprised even government officials, and Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity has fallen to 30 per cent, according to recent polls.

What most irks many Argentines is Fernández de Kirchner’s habit of demonizing all critics as public enemies, and her government’s systematic lying about everything from crime statistics to poverty and inflation rates.

While independent economists agree that Argentina’s inflation is 25 per cent — among the world’s highest — the government-run INDEC statistics’ institute maintains it’s of only 9.7 per cent. This should “go the Guinness Book of Records… of statistical hogwash,” wrote former INDEC statistics director Victor Beker in the daily Clarín earlier this week.

Argentina’s economy is likely to grow by 3 per cent this year, thanks to high international prices for Argentina’s soybean exports that will temporarily prolong Fernández de Kirchner’s “soja y suerte” (“soybeans and luck”) economic formula. But that’s way below the country’s 9 per cent growth rates in recent years.

And the president’s apparent plan to change the Constitution and seek re-election in 2015 is running into growing difficulties. Fernández de Kirchner’s legal crusade to silence the independent Clarín media group long before legislative elections this October — which officials hope will elect a new Congress that could rewrite election laws and allow the president’s reelection — has not yet been approved by the courts.

My opinion: Time is running against Argentina’s president. If her crusade to silence the Clarín media group doesn’t succeed by mid-2013, Fernández de Kirchner’s re-election drive will look increasingly unlikely. That, in turn, will embolden growing numbers of journalists, politicians and judges to turn against her.

Fernández de Kirchner, a charismatic speaker, could still reverse her declining popularity if she called for a national dialogue, stopped insulting critics and abandoned the Venezuelan model of constantly creating confrontations with real or imagined enemies — whether it’s the media, the business community or foreign countries — to justify the accumulation of absolute powers. But so far, as her letter to Darín shows, she doesn’t seem to be getting the message that presidents should be accountable to their people, and not the other way around.

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