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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-11-2019 13:26

Make way for the Cristina and Alberto show

From the moment the election results made it clear that her handpicked candidate had won, Cristina has been reminding Alberto he is simply an employee.

With the first days of his stint as president fast approaching, Alberto Fernández is in an increasingly sour mood. He makes this embarrassingly obvious by lashing out at journalists and foreign potentates whenever something they say or do irks him. He has even contrived to pick a quarrel with Pope Francis, a devout Peronist who, behind the scenes, played a role in his rise to his present eminence.

Alberto has good reason to feel jittery. While enjoying himself on the campaign trail, he took it for granted that handling the economy would be fairly easy because anyone could do better than Mauricio Macri, but since getting elected his more level-headed advisors have been warning him that to prevent it from rolling over a cliff, he would have to cut public spending to the bone and then some, which will not go down very well with the many who voted for him because they thought he would honour his campaign pledge to fill their pockets with money. It is true that among his supporters there are some who think he should make the printing presses work overtime and flood the country with pesos so consumption can boom, but by frightening market operators their suggestions have only made what was already a nasty outlook even grimmer.

For any new president, having to deal with an economy which is on the verge of a meltdown would be bad enough, but Alberto must also show the world that he is much more than Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s sock puppet. In turbulent times, people prefer to have an alpha male or a really tough lady in charge. The way things are going, convincing his fellow countrymen and outsiders that he has what it takes to lead Argentina in her hour of need could be even harder than keeping hyperinflation at bay.

From the moment the election results made it clear that her handpicked candidate had won, Cristina has been reminding Alberto he is simply an employee by, among other things, summoning him regularly to her flat in Recoleta and then ordering him to remove from his list the names of individuals he wanted to see in the government he is cobbling together because she does not fancy them. She can do this because, as everybody knows, had it not been for her, Alberto would never have got anywhere near the presidency. She owns most of the votes that got him where he is and is therefore entitled to call all the shots.

After getting sworn in, Alberto may try to use the quasi-monarchical powers of his office to wriggle himself free himself from Cristina’s tutelage, but as he knows that would be dangerous, he will have to go about it very carefully indeed. If the economy crumbles and riots break out in major cities, as could well happen, her many adherents could force him to step down, much as did their spiritual forebears a couple of generations earlier when they removed Juan Domingo Perón’s stalking-horse, Héctor Cámpora, from the presidency so the real boss could take over. As Cristina will be the vice-president, such a manoeuvre, sweetened perhaps by allusions to Alberto’s allegedly bad health, would present even fewer difficulties than it did back then. There would be no need to call new elections.

The relationship between Cristina and Alberto is a strange one. After leaving his post as her cabinet chief in July 2008, he spent the best part of a decade attacking her with quite extraordinary ferocity, treating her as a mentally unstable incompetent guilty of committing a large number of crass blunders, before apparently reconciling himself with her to form their current partnership. As students of Cristina’s behaviour attribute many of her attitudes to her determination to get her own back on the kind of people she thinks slighted her when they imagined they could do so with impunity, it could well be that she is just biding her time before making Alberto pay dearly for all the many insults he heaped on her when he, like many others, assumed she had been rendered harmless. Has she forgiven him? Or does she despise him with all her heart? We may soon know the answers to these interesting questions.

Given the wretched state of the country’s economy, the last thing those who depend on it need is for the Peronist factions that joined forces against Macri to begin hurling themselves at one another’s throats, but the differences between the pragmatic “moderates” – whose ranks presumably include Alberto – and those Kirchnerites who cherish fond memories of the bloodstained mayhem of the 1970s, are so great that cracks are already appearing in the coalition that won the elections.

Prospects would be brighter if everybody agreed that letting the economy fall to pieces would be a terrible thing, but among the Kirchnerites there are individuals who would positively welcome a collapse like Venezuela’s because they think a period of chaos would help them carry out the revolution they have long fantasised about. For them, the turmoil that has broken out in other parts of Latin America, especially Chile and Ecuador, is most encouraging; they take it to mean that the entire region is rising up against a status quo which, until just a few months ago, seemed likely to last for many years to come.

Optimists cross their fingers and hope against hope that Cristina will let Alberto get on with the job he successfully applied for, in exchange for shielding her and her relatives from the law. In their view, that would be the least bad way of sidestepping the unpleasant dilemmas the nation’s political elites have created for themselves over the years and, to their dismay, have now run up against.

Though endorsing corruption when Argentina desperately needs to attract big foreign investors, those high-minded puritans who tend to steer clear of countries in which businessmen are expected to hand considerable sums of money to bent officials, will not make economic recovery any easier, given the circumstances Alberto does not have much choice. For some time to come, he will have to continue to swear that he sincerely believes that Cristina is a scrupulously honest person who would never dream of stealing a single penny from the public purse – and that all the evidence that has been stacked up against her and her cronies is fake news concocted by enemies who have succeeded in colonising the media.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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