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.
As a female president, Mrs Kirchner is inevitably compared to the legendary Eva Perón, wife of the founder of the populist Peronist movement which still dominates Argentine politics today. A better comparison would be with Marie Antoinette: Argentines struggling to make a living were stunned this past summer to read of the presidential plane delivering the national newspapers to Kirchner, on holiday in Santa Cruz, at a daily cost to the taxpayer of £20,000. The plane is also said to be at the service of her family.
Mrs Kirchner artfully cast herself as Evita’s successor when she started out in politics while denying anything of the sort, and to this day she trades on her femininity and her own personal tragedy, only recently addressing the nation on television to inveigh against the “vultures” while invoking the memory of her late husband as the man who had taken them on in the first place. The election of an Argentine Pope came as a godsend (almost literally); Mrs Kirchner has visited Rome three times already to be photographed (in suitable black) with Pope Francis.
But her constant attacks on her enemies, real and imagined, may not be as effective as she imagines. Many Argentines are tired of the government’s constant hectoring. One leading journalist commented: “What riles me, and many Argentines who are not fanatics for any side, is that every dispute is presented as if it were the storming of the Bastille.”
When she leaves office, Mrs Kirchner, who recovered from life-threatening brain surgery last year, will undoubtedly be taken up by the world’s celebrity political windbag circuit. She will not lack for creature comforts: the Kirchners are believed to have amassed a tidy fortune by shrewd property dealing in Santa Cruz. The saddest aspect of her legacy, however, is a charge that can be levelled at every Argentine political leader since Juan Domingo Perón: that they have squandered the assets that should have consolidated Argentina, blessed with rich natural and human resources, as the most stable and prosperous country in Latin America instead of an international basket case.