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