Friday, October 29, 2010

Néstor, Cristina and the Isabel Connection

The death of former (and virtual) President Néstor Kirchner this week places Argentina once again at an institutional crossroads. For some time now the parallels between the last government of populist icon Juan Domingo Perón and the fast deteriorating popularity of the musical-chairs administration of Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have been apparent to anyone willing to see them. But this comparison has been conspicuous by its absence from the opinions of most political analysts, in observing the ‘royal Kouple’s’ falling ratings and their desperate attempts to regain control of power.

Caption: Cristina and Néstor Kirchner (Government House photo).

With Kirchner’s sudden death on Wednesday, at the age of 60, however, these parallels have suddenly burst to the forefront of many people’s thinking. And rightly so, considering the vast power that both men wielded and the instant vacuum resulting from their sudden demise. While there are indeed great differences between the situations then and now, I would almost dare suggest that they are more a matter of degree than of nature.

At the time of his death in 1974, Perón was already having trouble controlling rival left and rightwing factions within his political movement. And these rivalries expanded into a war of tit for tat violence when he died and was succeeded by his third wife, María Estela Martínez (better known as ‘Isabel’), who was manipulated by a covey of far rightwing handlers, the most ubiquitous of which was former police corporal and Perón bodyguard, José López Rega, alleged founder of the clandestine Triple-A death squad. The Kirchners too have been facing increasing rebellion and unrest in their party and its circle of influence. In the same way that Perón made use of the Montonero guerrilla movement as a shock force to help clear the way for his return from seventeen years of Spanish exile, Kirchner sought to utilize the piqueteros—a lower class protest movement whose primary methods include prolonged roadblocks and camp-ins—to expand his power base. But just as happened to Perón, this erstwhile alliance backfired on Kirchner when the radical group turned their disruptive and sometimes violent protests against him and his wife. Internal violence among opposing factions is also threatening to boil over now, as then—if, as yet, to a lesser degree—as witnessed by the handgun slaying earlier this month of a twenty-three-year-old leftwing activist in a clash between rival union groups.

The deterioration and self-destruction of Isabel’s government in the two years following her husband’s death is a major chapter in Argentina’s contemporary history and too long and intricate to detail here, but the chaos that this process of decay wrought eventually led to the military coup d’état that took place in March of 1976 and the consequences of which Argentine society is still paying today. It is interesting to note that as the situation worsened and that government’s popularity plummeted, Mrs. Perón’s administration resorted to ever-increasing attacks on the media, opposition politicians, the legislature, the courts and the country’s powerful agricultural sector. These are the very same sectors of society that the Kirchners have been attacking ever since it became clear to them that political power was slipping inexorably through their fingers.

There is a parallel too in the fact that, like the K administration, as Isabel Perón’s popular power base eroded, her government became ever more autocratic, with Isabel acting as a puppet for the interests of her handlers (and Cristina for those of her husband and his close circle of friends) and ruling to an ever increasing extent by executive decree.

In Isabel’s case, however, she was eventually sent away “for a rest”, while Senate leader Italo Luder temporarily took over the presidency and declared the country under ‘state of siege’—a modified form of martial law in which most constitutional rights are suspended and the Executive Branch is provided with almost unlimited power. Abusive use of the state of siege—and abuse of power in general—was precisely what brought the institutional breakdown that followed and was the tool used by the military in order to usurp power “in the name of democracy” from the people’s representatives for most of the next decade.

It can be (and is) argued that nothing like this could happen today, that the Argentine military is now too small, as well as too professional, to ever again contemplate taking over the government in the face of a power vacuum. In an otherwise excellent editorial with which veteran journalist Jorge Lanata began his program (DDT) last Wednesday night on Channel 26, he opined that “no one can cast doubt on institutional continuity” in the Argentina of today. He added that “Argentina will never again have a dictatorship.”

But while Lanata’s statement is very likely true with regard to any sort of military takeover in the wake of Kirchner’s death and the eventual consequences of the power vacuum that this has created in an administration under which separation of powers has clearly been undermined, it seems somewhat politically naïve, in my opinion, to affirm with such assurance that institutional continuity is a given. The fact is that just a decade ago, President Fernando De la Rúa was forced out of his post midway through his term, plunging Argentina into one of the worst institutional crises that it has ever suffered. This was not the result of a military coup, but of an apparently orchestrated and singularly violent civilian uprising. And institutional order was indeed altered, bearing in mind that, following De la Rúa’s fall, the country had no fewer than five presidents over the next year and a half (with at least one serving less than a week).

Another commentator and long-time investigator of the K empire, Luis Majul, has pointed out that at the time of his death, Kirchner was facing the possibility, for the first time since he began his career as mayor of Río Gallegos in 1987, of running for election as president in 2011 and losing. For any normal everyday candidate, this would only signify the agony of defeat, but for Néstor Kirchner, according to Majul, it opened up the possibility of his losing political immunity and being investigated (and very possibly convicted) for alleged illicit activities ranging from misuse of power for personal gain to heading up an illegal association. Majul, who has closely followed the Kirchners’ meteoric rise to the pinnacle of wealth and power, questions why a man who was capable of mounting such extraordinary ambitions would fail to pack a parachute for the day that his career almost inevitably crashed and burned. To me, the answer seems clearly to be that the couple were convinced that they would be able to pass the chains of office back and forth between them for years to come. And more recent polls showing that their popularity is dwindling fast have been the determining factor in their ever more autocratic style of government and the increasingly strong pressure they have brought to bear on their critics, not the least of whom, certainly, has been the CEO of the Clarín news group, Héctor Magnetto. Majul claims that Kirchner was heard among his closest associates to say, on more than one occasion, that if he didn’t put Magnetto in jail first, Magnetto would put him in jail.

Majul quotes “an important ex-minister”, who once, but apparently no longer, formed part of the Kirchner entourage, as saying that the former president and eminence grise behind his wife’s administration had final say on the most minute details of government, from “the price of the dollar to monetary aid for a city councilman in the greater Buenos Aires area.” But according to Majul, the unnamed former official also added that “now Kirchner doesn’t know how to keep himself from being investigated, tried and eventually sentenced, since he never imagined he’d have to face such a situation.”

Lanata observes that, now, “the forbidden word is ‘Isabel’.” This savvy newsman clearly defines the situation that Cristina Kirchner will face once her husband’s funeral rites are over: “An opposition vice president and a divided Peronist Party, one year before elections.” He adds that it is hard to tell on whom the President will be able to depend for any genuine support, pointing out that Planning Minister Julio de Vido is having health issues of his own, that Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández is more bark than bite, that Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman has proven more of a political and diplomatic liability than a plus and that the presence of CGT union leader Hugo Moyano is tantamount to having “the enemy within”.

Clearly, Cristina Kirchner is not Isabel Perón—who basically lent her husband’s name to the office of president while doing what she was told to do by those who were really in charge, no matter how disastrous the advice might have been. There are striking differences in the two women's personalities and levels of preparation. Furthermore, Cristina is often defiant and opinionated in her own right, which could work to her advantage in resisting some of the advances of the country’s more nefarious power brokers (like Moyano). But, be that as it may, she has, in the past, demonstrated herself to be patently unyielding to the opinions of really knowledgeable advisors like Martín Redrado whom she forced out of the Central Bank by decree, despite the fact that the policies he set were largely what kept the peso and international reserves stable and kept Argentina from falling victim to the international crisis. In fact, both she and her late husband have systematically removed the soundest of technical personnel from key posts, preferring to replace them with yes-men/women, who will do their bidding, which has been equivalent to doing whatever it takes not to lose their grip on power.

The death of Néstor Kirchner has, however, rendered any plan for continuing to foster a musical-chairs presidential succession between the current president and her spouse, ad infinitum, a moot point. The looming question that remains is, what next?


NOTE: I'd like to clarify, since several people have made similar comments, that I'm not comparing - as I state in the article - Isabel Perón and Cristina Kirchner in terms of their personalities or their preparation for the post of president. What I'm indeed comparing is a political situation in which extremely powerful men have sought to use their wives as a guarantee of their own continuation in power - Perón had already done so with Evita and wanted to repeat the experience with Isabel (who obviously also wasn't Eva Perón). Kirchner emulated Perón's formula with Cristina - obviously with better fortune in the first case and with a much higher-quality political partner in the second.

That doesn't change the fact, however, that the deaths of both men created, in one case, and will create, in the other, a huge power vacuum. If you look into the statements of people who have worked closely with the successive K administrations, you'll find that Néstor Kirchner has continued to wield enormous power since his wife replaced him in office, to the extent of being practically a co-president and sort of CEO of the empire. And there can be little doubt either that the couple's idea had been to continue to pass power back and forth between them for as long as possible, since few will deny that, had he lived, Kirchner would have been a candidate in the next elections.

The point is that history has shown that power vacuums have a way of getting filled. How they get filled depends on who comes out on top in the political game of King of the Mountain. This is why, after the experience of the orchestrated civilian coup that ended Fernando De la Rúa's government less than a decade ago, it seems to me to be politically naïve to simply assume that institutional continuity will be a given.