Argentina's New Evita The Hillary Clinton of Buenos Aires Prepares Presidential Bid

Glamorous Argentine first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wants to become the country's next president. As wife of the current president, she has a lot in common with Hillary Clinton: Both rose to power in the provinces, both are attorneys and both are conscious of the power they possess.

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Argentine first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: "She's the one wearing the pants."
AP

Argentine first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner: "She's the one wearing the pants."

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's generous president and oil magnate, can be extremely charming -- when he's in a good mood. During a whirlwind visit to the Rio de la Plata last week, he praised the beauty of "wonderful Buenos Aires," raved about "Argentina, the great fatherland" and courted his "friend and statesman, Nestor Kirchner." But most of all he cooed over First Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. "Cristina will be the next president," he said.

The object of his flattery was quick to return the favor. In honor of the visitor from Venezuela, Fernandez wore a form-fitting, bright red jacket at a reception in the presidential palace. Argentina's first lady was literally beaming when she returned the compliments of the "First Citizen, President and Comandante of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." The next morning Chavez let it slip that Fernandez "said more than her husband" at a dinner in the presidential residence, mischievously adding: "But I think it's always that way."

Chavez's quips are more than idle banter. Argentines have been speculating for months over whether President Nestor Kirchner will run for re-election or send his wife into the race. Now it's certain. Fernandez will run for president in the country's elections in late October, a development that doesn't come as much of a surprise to Argentines. The president's wife already gives the impression that she is running the country, especially when it comes to foreign policy. She recently met with Spanish business executives to discuss Argentina's economic policies; and during a state visit to Mexico, she presented the conservative Mexican government with Buenos Aires' thoughts on rapprochement between the two countries.

'Queen Cristina'

Although the campaign hasn't officially begun, the Peronists in the countryside are already closing ranks around "Queen Cristina." She was treated like a pop star during a ceremony to dedicate a shopping center in Córdoba. Wearing high boots and a long, black leather coat, she marched through the hallways, with the governor and the provincial political elite hurrying to keep up. "She's the one wearing the pants," said one admiring female onlooker.

Fernandez seems almost born to be president. She gives confident speeches without a manuscript or a teleprompter, and she moves skillfully and confidently in diplomatic circles. "She has a political profile that's independent of her husband," says author and publicist Horacio Verbitsky. Indeed, Cristina was better known than her husband before he was elected. According to Verbitsky, people used to ask: "Who's the man at her side?"

Fernandez comes for a middle-class family in La Plata, a university city. She met Kirchner, a fellow student, while attending law school. Both were closely aligned with the leftist, Peronist circles that dominated the universities at the time.

After the 1976 military coup, the couple moved to Santa Cruz, Kirchner's native province in Patagonia, where they became reasonably affluent with a law firm and real estate deals. Kirchner was elected governor and his wife became a member of the provincial parliament. She is a senator for Buenos Aires Province today.

Fernandez is fond of pointing out similarities between she and Nestor and Washington power couple Bill and Hillary Clinton. Like the Clintons, the Kirchners are both from provincial cities, and they are ambitious and conscious of their power. The couple sees the presidency as another extension of the Kirchner family business. But Nestor has never felt truly comfortable in Argentina's cosmopolitan capital. The "Penguin," as he likes to call himself, with a touch of self-irony, is a brusque, private man. He has staffed his administration with a small circle of trusted supporters from his home province.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left), Argentinine President Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina: In addition to cozying up to Chavez, Cristina Kirchner has sought to improve relations with Washington.
AP

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left), Argentinine President Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina: In addition to cozying up to Chavez, Cristina Kirchner has sought to improve relations with Washington.

When Kirchner came into office four years ago, the haughty porteños -- as Buenos Aires residents are called -- placed bets that he wouldn't last two years. The country he was elected to run was in chaos. The economy had collapsed, the financial system was bankrupt and five presidents had entered and left office in the space of two weeks.

But the porteños had underestimated the man from Patagonia, who calmly proceeded to lead Argentina out of its near-catastrophe. To the chagrin of creditors worldwide, he ordered the cessation of debt service payments. Nevertheless, Kirchner managed to stabilize the exchange rate and boost domestic industry. He also outmaneuvered and sidelined his adversaries in the Peronist party.

A 'Transition President'

The economy has been humming along for the past four years, and Buenos Aires is almost blossoming the way it once did. "Hell is behind us," says Alberto Fernandez, the chief of his cabinet, "now we're in purgatory." Argentina has had trouble securing loans on the international financial markets since it stopped servicing its debts. The country would be ill-prepared for another financial crisis, leaving many Argentines skeptical about the current boom. Besides, an energy crisis, corruption scandals and rising inflation have overshadowed Kirchner's last few months in office. The government is already calling Kirchner a "transition president," emphasizing that Cristina Fernandez will complete the country's modernization.

No president's wife has acquired comparable influence since Evita Peron. But Cristina rejects comparisons to the near-mythical "Angel of the Poor," preferring to hone her image as a modern alpha woman. If she resembled the legendary Peron in any way, she recently said, she would rather see herself as an "Evita with a clenched fist."

Fernandez is uncomfortable amongst the masses and often prefers to keep her distance. She feels most comfortable in political debates, and at conferences and meetings. She has earned a reputation as a dazzling speaker in the country's congress, but she is also considered arrogant and moody. The porteños vilify her for her penchant for flashy jewelry and tight-fitting trousers, her cosmetic surgeries, her artificially full lips and her heavy makeup. "Let Cristina come to power; then the Peronists will finally have to stop blaming others for their failure," says author and former Minister of Culture Marcos Aguinis derisively.

A Remarkably Diplomatic Politician

But Argentines could well be underestimating Fernandez, just as they underestimated her husband four years ago. She has proven to be remarkably diplomatic as a politician. During the Chavez visit, for example, she demonstrated full command of the balancing act between Caracas and Washington, the most difficult challenge for every Latin American politician today.

Kirchner is one of Chavez's most important allies in the region, and Argentina benefits from the aid Venezuela's president provides. Using his oil dollars, Chavez purchased Argentine government bonds for well over $5 billion, and last week he acquired an additional $500 million in bonds. He also plans to supply Argentina with liquefied natural gas.

"When it comes to the energy supply, Venezuela is as important to Latin America as Russia is to Europe," Fernandez recently admitted. But in addition to cozying up to Chavez, Fernandez has sought to improve relations with Washington, which have suffered under her husband's administration. In preparation for the Council of the Americas, a meeting of the economic elite from the United States and Latin America, she touted Argentina last week as an attractive investment target. "You can make quite a lot of money in Argentina," she told potential investors.

Winning over the Europeans will be next on Fernandez's agenda. She plans to make her debut in Berlin in early September, as well as an appearance before the Club of Paris, a group of leading creditor nations. Fernandez believes that it's time for Argentina to open itself up to the world once again. To help it reach that goal, she plans to take a page from the books of her fellow female leaders, including her role models, "Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel."

Translated from the German by Chris Sultan.

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