I met Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007, just before she was first elected president of Argentina. In our interview, she talked a good deal about the rise of women leaders in the Americas, from then Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to then U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The world needed more of them, Fernández told me, because these women “bring a different face to politics. We’re culturally formed to be citizens of two worlds, public and private. We’re wrapped up as much in what our daughters’ school principal says as we are in what the newspapers are saying – we see the big geopolitical picture but also the smaller daily details of our citizens’ lives.”
That awareness – along with the remarkable economic boom Argentina has experienced over the past decade – helped Fernández reduce her country’s economic inequality and propelled her to a landslide re-election in 2011. Fernández “has implemented a number of programs that are very good in terms of advancing social justice,” says Ariel Armony, director of the University of Miami’s Center for Latin American Studies and an Argentina native.
So how do we explain the political mudslide that just hit Fernández? In Sunday’s midterm elections, her populist “Kirchnerist” alliance (named for her late husband and presidential predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, who died in 2010) was broadsided by the opposition and lost a significant chunk of its seats in the Argentine National Congress.
That means it will be all but impossible now for Fernández and her supporters to change Argentina’s Constitution so she can run for a third term in 2015. More important, it threatens to snuff out what’s left of her second term. If, that is, she can finish it: Fernández was unable to stump for her congressional candidates down the stretch because of a recent head injury that has left her sidelined indefinitely.
But even if Fernández were physically healthy, her political prognosis would still be dark. And that’s because she seems in the past two years to have forgotten the maternal maxim she laid out six years ago: seeing the smaller, daily details of your citizens’ lives.
Consider daily details like Argentina’s inflation rate, which has ballooned to 25 percent. Or the nation’s violent crime rate, one of the worst in South America. Or official corruption: prosecutors accuse Fernández’s own vice president, Amado Boudou, in a massive influence peddling scandal. (He denies the charge.) Or polarization: Fernández has turned out to be one of the most divisive political figures in a country famous for political divisiveness.
The list unfortunately goes on. Fernández is no doubt a pioneering female leader. But like so many leftist leaders – especially those who, as she did, turn further leftward and more authoritarian when they’re at the peak of power – she lost sight of how anti-poverty crusades get undermined when a president takes her eye off important balls like sound macroeconomic management, public security – and simple communication.
In fact, “Queen Cristina,” as Fernández is often called these days, has become one of Latin America’s most insulated heads of state. As a result, says Armony, “Argentina is seen right now as a country that has no direction. In the world of globalization that’s a very, very serious problem, because you need investors, you need foreign capital.”
Instead, Argentina, Latin America’s third largest economy, is now hemorrhaging capital: In the past few years, some $35 billion has flown out of the country. A lot of it has landed here in Miami, where Argentines are now the No. 1 foreign real estate buyers. And experts like Armony see that trend continuing.
After Sunday, says Armony, and with Fernández’s physical condition still something of an unknown, “Argentina faces a situation of uncertainty. Almost every week I hear of Argentines who want to apply for [a U.S.] investor visa. They want to start new businesses, and rather than doing that in Argentina, they have to choose another place like Miami.”
That’s just another indication that Queen Cristina’s reign is all but over. Ironically, one of her top former allies, Sergio Massa, was Sunday’s big winner: he routed Fernández’s congressional candidate in the all-important Buenos Aires province by 12 points and immediately positioned himself as the presidential favorite for 2015.
But as Armony points out, a lot can change in two years. Just ask Queen Cristina.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.