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Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: More like Marie Antoinette than Eva Peron (illustration by Michael Daley)

The walls of Buenos Aires are plastered with posters bearing the simple message "Patria o Buitres" — "Country or Vultures". There is no mistaking who the principal vultures are: the New York hedge funds that have forced Argentina into default for the second time since 2002. No harm in that, some may say: even the world financial community calls them "vulture funds". But for the administration led by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner the vultures have spread their wings much farther than Wall Street: they consist of anyone who dares to oppose the government.

They include the unions, who recently called a general strike in protest at the failure to match wages with inflation, likely to exceed 30 per cent this year; the media, or what little of it remains outside government control; the Yanquis (naturally); and Britain, because of Argentina's continuing claim to the Falklands (inevitably). Wrapping yourself in the national flag is the traditional last resort of South American leaders with nothing much else going for them. The late Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela until his death in 2013, was a past master at it. It is no coincidence that he was Kirchner's closest ally on the continent, nor that Argentina's inflation rate is second only to Venezuela's in South America, and for the same reasons: a bloated and wasteful public sector, mismanaged publicly-owned enterprises, and deep-seated government corruption and cronyism.

Now 61, Kirchner blames everyone but herself for Argentina's deepening troubles as she approaches the end of what will be eight eventful years as president: she has to step down next year after two four-year terms in office. She was first elected in 2007 as the candidate of the Justicialist party, successor to the Peronists, taking over from her husband Néstor Kirchner, who stepped down after one term. Cristina won on merit: she had built up a decent record as a member of the national chamber of deputies representing the remote Patagonian province of Santa Cruz where the Kirchners first developed their political power base. She was re-elected with an increased majority in 2011, Néstor having died unexpectedly of a heart attack the previous year.

The record hasn't been all bad. Néstor Kirchner inherited an economy in freefall after the default of 2002-3 and dragged the country back to solvency with a pragmatic mixture of state intervention and free-market measures. Mrs Kirchner's subsequent stewardship was boosted for some years by buoyant commodity prices and measures like a wide-ranging child benefit reform went down well. But there was widespread scepticism about the real state of the economy because of the belief that the state fiddled the inflation figures, culminating last year in the International Monetary Fund issuing an unprecedented official demand that Argentina come clean about official statistics. The consumer price index has since been completely revised, leading to an inflation figure which now has some credibility.

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