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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: the modern day Evita?

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The popularity of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has seen her compared to Eva Perón but at home and abroad the firebrand leader is not afraid to make enemies when fighting her cause

In October 2011, thousands filled Plaza de Mayo in front of Buenos Aires’ presidential palace, waiting for their heroine to speak. It was the same square where Eva Perón spoke to the masses in 1951, commanding unwavering support. But this time it wasn’t Evita who enthralled masses of adoring Argentinians – it was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or, as she’s affectionately known, CFK.

“I want to keep changing history,” declared Fernández, referring to the fact that she had just secured a historic second term as the country’s president. Something Evita never achieved – and CFK was re-elected with 54% of the vote. “The worst that people can be is small. In history, you always must be bigger still, more generous, more thoughtful, more thankful. This woman isn’t moved by any [self] interest. The only thing that moves her is profound love for the country. Of that I’m responsible.”

And Fernández has remained true to those words since that night, when she became Latin America’s first woman to be re-elected as Premier. However, her style of politicking has brought her into confrontation with many other leaders and global power brokers. In particular, Fernández has doggedly pursued her country’s claim over the Falklands, using the 30th anniversary of the war, in 2012, to re-establish their right to the islands.

In the process, she has called Britain a “crude colonial power in decline” (Britain established rule in 1833) and her government’s refusal to relinquish their sovereignty stake on Las Malvinas, as Argentinians call the Falklands, is defining her second term.

In January, Fernández wrote an open letter to David Cameron, “in the name of the Argentine people”, published as a full-page advert in The Guardian and The Independent. In it, she called for Britain to “abide by the resolutions of the United Nations” which she cites as being the “necessity of bringing to an end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations”. This followed on from a much-publicised confrontation between the two leaders at the G20 summit in June 2012 when Cameron sought out Fernández in the venue and told her his position. Cameron said it was one of self-determination and that they should both respect the views of the islanders in the referendum that took place in March this year. In return, Fernández tried to get Cameron to accept a package of documents marked “UN – Malvinas” but he refused to play along and walked away with his aides. In the referendum, all but three islanders chose to stay British, but Fernández dismissed the result, quipping, “It’s as if a bunch of squatters were to vote on whether or not to keep occupying a building illegally.”

With Obama in April 2012

Friends in high places

The 60 year old has always courted friends in high places to help in her current cause célèbre. She has accepted help and posed for photographs with everyone from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to actor and human rights activist Sean Penn, in an attempt to keep the issue in the spotlight. And, in March this year, she found a friend in one of the highest places of all, the Vatican.

Characteristically, Fernández, who was raised Catholic, wasted no time in seeking an audience with the newly elected Argentinian pontiff. The two were well acquainted because before he became Pope Francis, he was Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. During his tenure in the capital the two leaders rarely saw eye to eye. They clashed on social reforms promoted by Fernández and when she was leading a political charge to legalise gay marriage in 2010, Fernández accused the cardinal of belonging to “medieval times and the inquisition”. However, when they met over lunch at the Vatican, the two of them found common ground over the Falklands. Fernández asked for his “intervention” and couldn’t contain her delight that they had made amends. “Never in my life has a pope kissed me,” she remarked after the meeting.

However, there are those who suggest the Falkland Islands are a smokescreen for an administration that is in trouble as approval ratings fall and she desperately tries to hang on to the goodwill of the people.

"Cristina is now a political survivalist, she knows what she must do in order to get laws passed and keep her majorities in congress,” says Gabriela Cerruti, a close friend and elected official in the Buenos Aires assembly. “But she never wanted to be a politician, she only wanted to be a lawyer and uphold social justice in Argentina.”

And it was at law school in La Plata, the Buenos Aires province where she was born and raised, that Cristina Fernández met the clever – and ambitious – Néstor Kirchner. They were married in 1975 and had their first child, Máximo, two years later.

Under Argentina’s dictatorship in the mid-Seventies and early Eighties the pair practised law in the province of Santa Cruz, and this is where they embarked on the long road from the far south of the country to the presidential palace. Fernández was elected to the Santa Cruz local assembly in 1989, just a year before giving birth to her second child, Florenica, while Kirchner became governor of Santa Cruz in 1991. Kirchner had always been politically motivated and when he was re-elected four years later he encouraged his wife to represent Santa Cruz again, this time in the national senate.

"This is where Cristina’s skill as a lawyer made her a very effective politician,” recalls Ramon Maza, a senior member of Fernández’s Front For Victory party. “Her oration is second to none, she never referred to briefing notes. [At the time] she treated the senate floor like her court room, and would humiliate opponents with quick-fire cross examinations.” When Kirchner ran for and won the presidency in 2003, she became a very modern first lady, almost pre-dating the style and profile of Michelle Obama.

In her offices

La presidenta

Intelligent and articulate, Fernández actively pursues the socially inclusive agenda of her heroine, Eva Perón, who had dutifully followed her own husband, Juan Perón, into the political arena. Evita eventually eclipsed him to become an iconic figure that sought to redress the inequalities between rich and poor. Her biography, La Razón De Mi Vida (The Mission Of My Life), is one of Fernández’s favourite books from growing up and, she has said, still occupies a place beside her bed.

As first lady, she was champion of the underclass and together the Kirchner-Fernández government made a mission out of cutting the wealth gap by half. This was helped by the fact that they were in office during one of the most successful financial periods in the country’s history – Argentina was only behind China and India in economic growth, driven by Argentina’s agricultural exports. The husband and wife team were hailed as a dynasty that could rival the Peróns.

In 2007, with Kirchner’s term limits in mind (the president of Argentina can only serve two consecutive four-year terms), the decision was taken to extend that dynasty. “Popular opinion is that a plan was hatched for Kirchner to bequeath the presidency to his wife, who would run and win, and then stand for re-election once her term had expired so they would get 12 years of governance rather than just eight,” Carolina Barros, editor-in-chief of the English language Buenos Aires Herald, tells Stylist.

Fernández won with almost half of the vote (more than double what her husband had achieved) and her more prominent position brought about a high profile makeover. The designer suits got more expensive – Louis Vuitton is said to be a favourite – and she was never photographed without make-up. A lot of make-up. Her critics dubbed her ‘Botox Evita’, but according to those close to her, such as Cerruti, “if you speak to her oldest friends she has been obsessed with cosmetics ever since the nuns told her she couldn’t have any. That’s who Cristina is and she won’t change.”

“During her first term she requested that she be referred to as ‘La Presidenta’ but was careful to ensure she was officially known by both her maiden and married names to reassure the party that her husband remained her unofficial chief adviser and strategist. Shockingly, though, in 2010 Kirchner suffered a fatal heart attack aged 60 and doctors were unable to save him.

His death brought about the end of a personal and political marriage but it redefined the woman. Cristina, as people began to refer to her, stood alone beside her husband’s coffin as it lay in state, greeting officials with a graceful smile and an acceptance of condolence turning to touch her husband’s casket

“She was quite simply, Presidential,” says Cerruti. “And the whole of the country saw it and this is what led to her re-election in 2011.” However, after that victorious night in front of her supporters at the Plaza de Mayo, Argentinians finally began to feel the bite of the Kirchner-Fernández policies. “Fernández did stimulate employment, put more money in people’s pockets, increase child welfare and minimum wage,” says Barros. “By presidential decree she created a $3 billion support programme so that under-privileged mothers received financial assistance from early in their pregnancies. But all the time it was masking dangerously high rates of inflation and debt.”

Fernández had no option but to institute a period of fiscal austerity in 2012. However, it was too little too late for International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde who warned Fernández that Argentina could face sanctions unless it began offering reliable inflation data.

On the 31 Anniversary of the Falklands War

In November, the austerity measures triggered an outbreak of public protests across the country. Amid the cacophony of loud hailers and angry shouts Fernández was nowhere to be seen. “A year earlier you couldn’t have missed her,” says Araceli Cattaneo, an Argentinian student studying at the London School of Economics. “She made sure of that with huge TV screens and balcony speeches. But the Argentinian people remember the dark days in the Eighties when inflation and a devalued currency led to hard times and riots caused by food shortages with women and children looting supermarkets desperate with hunger. They don’t want to return to that again.”

However, it’s those long memories that Fernández is now relying on to get her people back on side as she stirs up a diplomatic hornets’ nest by pressuring the return of the Falkland Islands. Her aim now is to discredit the referendum by drumming up support from 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries decrying it as a colonialist exercise and pressurising the UN to mediate a solution.

Other friends argue that this is not a cynical political stunt but one of the things that makes her an impressive woman and formidable leader.

“Her feelings for Las Malvinas are born not from grandstanding but because she lived in the south when the conscripts were leaving to fight,” says Cerruti. “She saw what that war cost in human life much more acutely than anyone sitting in Buenos Aires.”

The smile that characterised her time as first lady and La Presidenta is rarely glimpsed these days. What does remain is her flawless make-up and slick dress sense. “I like to seduce,” she revealed in her 2011 biography. “I don’t want people to just obey me. I want to convince them.” And with the mid-term elections approaching in October, when Fernández could lose her majority in congress, that seduction must begin in earnest. Not just at home, but here in the UK where the Falklands issue threatens, once again, to be front-page news.

Words: Jon Axeworthy, Photos: Rex Features

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