Cristina Fernández de Kirchner does not speak in public often, but she still becomes the pole of attraction in Argentine politics almost every time she does. Last week was no exception, with a letter on the 10th anniversary of his late husband Néstor Kirchner’s death that was also her first lengthy public intervention since Alberto Fernández took office last year.
Similarly to what happened with the founder of Fernández de Kirchner’s political movement – Juan Domingo Perón – when he spoke from exile, the vice president’s words often come with certain ambiguity, and get twisted according to the convenience of whomever is interpreting them.
One notable example of this came in the first of the letter’s three sections, with Fernández de Kirchner’s mention of “government officials that aren’t functioning” (funcionarios que no funcionan, in Spanish) and of “hits and misses” from the current administration.
Those words came in a wider context of criticism to Macri’s government, the media and the current opposition. The Vice President argued that, whatever the shortcomings of Fernández’s administration, it is certainly different in style than hers, less confrontational and more diplomatic like her critics often demanded. Yet it still gets criticized in the same fierce fashion, Fernández de Kirchner said, proving in her view that it wasn’t really a matter of opposition to her style that ruffled feathers, but “an anti Peronist prejudice” from “political and media sectors who can’t accept that Macri’s business-led government was a failure”.
President Alberto Fernández emphasized this context the day after the letter was published, saying he took it as a statement in support of him, while opposition-friendly media underlined the shots taken at Fernández’s cabinet. Any differences with regards to how the cabinet is working could have been discussed privately, however, and the decision to air them publicly is hard to be seen as anything other than a partial distancing from what Fernández is doing, at a moment in which the administration is clearly struggling.
Names at risk
No names were named by the VP in her letter, but it isn’t hard to guess that Justice Minister Marcela Losardo (who has not been in line with Cristina Kirchner’s views on how to reform courts) or Labor Minister Claudio Moroni (criticized by Máximo Kirchner for some of his decisions when workers’ suspensions began at the start of the lockdown) might be among them.
Housing Minister María Eugenia Bielsa is also at risk, with little to no results shown so far while hundreds of protests for land and housing take place across the country, and some even go as far as questioning Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, a young politician whose position has at times seemed too big for him.
Finally, in a context of economic crisis, the rumors about power struggles in the economic cabinet seem inevitable, although changes are not imminent for now, particularly because doing any moves so shortly after the VP’s public suggestion would make President Fernández look weak.
The second section of Fernández de Kirchner’s letter also had differing interpretations. In that segment, the VP argued that “in Argentina decisions are made by the President. You can like what he decides or not, but he is the one who decides. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, you should ask whose interests that person represents.”
For some, this was also a way of keeping her name clean from any major economic, political, social or health disasters for which the government could be made responsible, while for others it was merely a defense from the constant accusations of puppeteering made against her in the anti-Peronist press. It is likely that there was a bit of both.
“The narrative of the puppet president is not even an original one. They said Néstor would be Duhalde’s puppet, that I was Néstor’s puppet and now they are doing the same with Alberto and me,” the VP’s letter said. “But this is now how the Executive works in a presidential system. The President makes the decisions, the President names, keeps or dismisses officials, and the President decides on public policy”.
To prove her point, Fernández de Kirchner recalled that the ruling coalition was broad enough to include a man who “publicly promised to put Kirchnerites in jail” (a reference to Sergio Massa, who leads the House of Representatives) or people who “published books against me” (as did Vilma Ibarra, Fernández’s main legal adviser).
On the day after the letter, Fernández very deliberately chose to appear in public flanked by Massa and Ibarra, in another cryptic message that some saw as a sign of support for people the VP might question, and others played down arguing that there is no real conflict with them today, given –for example– that Massa is a very close ally of Máximo Kirchner at the Lower House today, and the former critic of Fernández de Kirchner seems to be in very good terms with her son.
It was noted, however, that Máximo Kirchner was not with President Fernández, Massa and Ibarra when that picture was taken, during an event on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Néstor Kirchner’s death.
The VP’s son chose instead to visit a smaller event remembering his father, in the humbler district of Florencio Varela, Buenos Aires Province, with a lesser-known crowd of Kirchnerite loyalists known as “13 de Abril Group”, named after the day in which Fernández de Kirchner had to face corruption accusations during Macri’s presidency (April 13, 2016). Fernández de Kirchner arrived to the courts that day flanked by a mass of supporters who, despite the horrible weather, wanted to show that they were on her side even during her most trying moments.
Unity for the peso
The last of the letter’s three sections was perhaps the biggest political surprise: a call for a political agreement that includes the opposition, businessmen, unions, social representatives and –in typical Cristina fashion– even the media, in order to deal with what he defined as the country’s most serious problem: it’s “bimonetary economy”, as she put it, or the constant runs against the peso and into the US dollar, which no government left or right has been able to stop, as the letter argued.
While all the discussion about who really leads the Frente de Todos ruling coalition and the potential sources of tension within it are not really new, this call for dialogue and unity with the opposition could in some sense be a new element for the coming months in Argentine politics.
Of course, many in the opposition could choose to reject it: why help a political adversary when it looks weak? And why suddenly trust Fernández de Kirchner, whom many see as the source of many of the country’s problems? Considering how unstable Argentina’s economy looks at the moment, this might be the smartest choice, similarly to when Peronism rejected Fernando De La Rúa’s proposal for a unity government in 2001 days before De La Rúa’s downfall.
But Fernández is not as weak now as De La Rúa was then, the latter having already lost the mid-term elections, the support of the IMF, and frozen people’s bank accounts to try to temporarily halt a historic financial crash, to no avail.
Who’s willing to talk?
Some of the staunchest critics of Fernández de Kirchner have already shown interest in opening talks with the government. These include Macri’s former running mate Miguel Ángel Pichetto, who said he “valued the call for dialogue” and that “Argentina needs agreements, stable policies and social peace”, as well as the VP’s bitter rival Elisa Carrió, who broke her months-long silence to state that despite seeing Fernández de Kirchner as “the least qualified person to call for a dialogue”, her party is willing to support Alberto Fernández precisely because they see him as “weak”, and arguing that they don’t want to help the Vice President weaken him further.
Carrió also said she was willing to accept the government’s candidate for Attorney General, Daniel Rafecas, whose nomination has been blocked by the Senate (where two thirds are needed for his appointment) because he sees him as a democratic man, better than the alternative scenario she foresees in which Kirchnerites simply change the rules, say one half of the Senate is now needed to appoint a new AG, and take advantage of this to pick a “fanatic”, “like in Maduro’s Venezuela”, who would have no qualms about “putting journalists or opposition leaders in jail”.
Allies or enemies, yet again the former president has managed to have everyone responding to her words, sustaining her as the center of gravity of Argentine politics.