Monday, October 29, 2007

American Evita?

In the U.S. coverage of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president-elect of Argentina, the fluffiness of the American mass media has been on embarrassing display: Does she wear too much makeup? Is she the Argentine Hillary Clinton? Nothing about whether she can tame inflation or her plan to reverse the ravages of globalization.

Of course, American reporters never ask whether Sen. Clinton wears too little makeup or speculate whether Hillary is the American Evita. That might suggest that the USA is not the epicenter of the world -- Zeus forbid!

In fact, the newly elected president of Argentina is a politician in her own right, unlike Hillary she has been a legislator for decades and a principled advocate even to the point of getting expelled from her party briefly for holding fast to her positions.

She has had to navigate immensely more difficult waters than Hillary.

Just take a look at her name Christina Fernández (maiden name) de (literally "of") Kirchner. It's the middle- to upper-class nomenclature in Argentina, less common today in Spain, denoting the woman as the consort of the paterfamilias (see here, starting with the 6th paragraph).

In Argentine common use, men will call their wife "mi mujer" (my woman) rather than "mi esposa" (my spouse). Perhaps it has to do with the other meaning of esposa, hand-cuff. No woman gets away with calling their husband "mi hombre" (my man).

Argentina thinks of itself as a cultural suburb of Paris, but at some level it remains locked in the mental corridors of old Spain's Escorial, Philip II's monastic palace, and in the magical archetypes of Italy, from which more than half of Argentina's population hail.

As to her challenges as president, they are many.

Since the implosion of the Argentine economy at the beginning of the decade, a catastrophe incumbent President Nestor Kirchner inherited four years ago, the country has gone from near Depression levels of unemployment back to its traditional underemployment, or actual shortage of skilled labor, heating up the economy.

The government says inflation runs at 8 percent annually, the Wall Street Journal predictably claims the "leftist" administration is halving the rate, the International Monetary Fund estimates 12 percent -- I'm sticking with the IMF figure. For a country whose inflation once ran in the hundreds of percentage points a year, surpassing even the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany, this is quite modest.

Let's also not forget the "leftist" baiting. President Kirchner, her husband, is widely hated for taking the side of the victims of the military dictatorship of 1976-83, which kidnapped, tortured and murdered an estimated 30,000 people and a precisely documented 8,900. (See here for the story of one I knew.)

He pushed for and sought the overturning of amnesty laws for military officers accused of torture and assassinations. On the 30th anniversary of the coup that launched the bloody regime, Kirchner toured the former places of torture with survivors.

Two years ago, in a spectacle typical of Peronism, Sen. Kirchner spoke at a rally commemorating Evita and asked, in the spirit of the cult of the late wife of the late Juan Domingo Perón, "What Would Evita Do?" in the face of globalization.

Can she fulfill the enormous expectations and meet the challenges? This is the question that American journalists should have explored.

Argentina, after all, has long competed with Brazil and Mexico for economic first place in Latin America and has a cultural and political influence all its own within the Southern Cone subregion.

From the pundits in Buenos Aires one can glean that this election may mark the beginning of new politics.

Cristina Kirchner's win (45 percent of the vote in a field of 14 candidates) was enough to secure the presidency in one ballot (Argentine law calls for a second round among the top two candidates when the plurality is smaller). But it's a bit of a squeaker for the undisputed majority party since 1946 when Himself was the candidate.

Still, she will pose a challenge to a fragmented opposition, which won largely in the big cities, Buenos Aires, Bahía Blanca, Mar del Plata, but lost nearly everywhere else. This represents a bit of a class divide between the educated urbanites and the poorer rural inhabitants who are still the majority.

All that lies in the future. For now, I toast to an attorney of seeming conviction and vigor, a woman who may yet show the way to her sister Hillary.
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