When she stepped down from the presidency last night, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left office with the country facing a host of problems. As across Latin America, hunger and poverty remain beatable scourges in poorer areas; the federal reserves are severely depleted; nobody is quite sure what the actual rate of inflation is thanks to the outgoing administration’s own denial over figures, and it’s certainly far higher than anyone could call acceptable. The list, for sure, goes on.
Are Argentina’s problems such as these indicative of the failure of 12 years of rule by the Victory Front (FpV) from 2003 to now, as many who backed the new right-leaning President Mauricio Macri have swiftly proclaimed? Perhaps to a certain extent, at least.
But those who deny Kirchnerism’s parallel, robust achievements since former President Néstor Kirchner took the helm in 2003, at the tail end of the most catastrophic economic crisis Argentina had faced in decades, do a disservice to the distance Argentina has rebounded since then and the historic victories it has won along the way.
An Economy Saved, Rebounded, Stuttering
Néstor assumed office with a tiny mandate of just 22 percent of votes, though this was far more than his other presidential contenders got.
It was a moment preceded by a near universal hatred of, or at least contempt for, politicians in the country. It followed the horrific scenes of neoliberalism’s fall in 2001, when former Radical (UCR) President Fernando de la Rúa was forced to flee the Casa Rosada by helicopter in the wake of mass killing of protestors on the streets of Buenos Aires City by police, as seething crowds on the Plaza de Mayo chanted “Que se vayan todos” (“Out with the lot of them!”)
Cristina alluded to it in her farewell speech last night, in fact.
“When Néstor took office, no one had a peso in their pockets. Well, some did, some of them had stolen a few pesos — but there were few of them,” she said, not unreasonably.
At that time, poverty stood at a disgraceful high of between 50 and 60 percent according to the latest reliable histories of the era. By the time Néstor left office in 2007 to be replaced by Cristina, it had been reduced by a historic margin — down 30 percent to 23.4 percent of the population, according to Bernardo Kliksberg of UK think tank Progressive Governance.
Thanks to health programs like Remediar (To Remedy), free healthcare is provided to 15 million Argentines for the first time, according to INDEC. That was just the tip of the iceberg, according to Kliksberg:
“From the perspective of social policy as a right of citizens and a generator of opportunities for productive integration, the social administration led by Alicia Kirchner, head of the Social Cabinet (under Néstor Kirchner), designed and implemented very broad programs, such as Seguridad alimentaria (Food Safety), Manos a la obra (Let’s Work) and the Familias (Families), which had fast and very significant results. Their basic guidelines included: a territorial approach; the participation of the community; the promotion of social development and a social economy; and the concept of family as the axis of social inclusion,” he wrote in “Poverty and Development: Lessons from Argentina.”
This unprecedented victory over human misery in the region was being repeated across the continent — in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere too. Centuries of dependency and stunted development were being overturned.
This continued under Cristina, with the Universal Child Allowance (UAE) and such programs.
Néstor’s pioneering presidency achieved all of this through state intervention in the economy, robust and ambitious government social programs and a favorable export market for what the country was selling abroad — in Argentina’s case, soy beans, beef and fossil fuels, among others.
Those who pinned Argentina’s rebound under Néstor to the beneficial market prices have deliberately blurred the facts though, as economist Mark Weisbrot has pointed out: without Néstor’s bold state interventionism, the socioeconomic recovery would never have happened.
This was made possible in part by his even bolder confrontation with global capital’s temple of market orthodoxy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), according to world-famous scholar Noam Chomsky:
“Argentina vigorously followed IMF rules… the ones that Thomas Friedman extols, and created a total catastrophe. Finally, Néstor Kirchner was elected, he radically violated IMF rules and there was a very significant recovery,” he wrote in “What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World.”
The IMF’s monetary policy in the developing world had barely been challenged once before Néstor took office. By defaulting on much of Argentina’s debt to that pro-market, US-EU organization, he allowed Argentina to shift macroeconomic policy towards investment and ultimately growth, especially after the controversial “debt swap” of 2005 with many of Argentina’s private creditors.
Néstor’s hardline won Argentina crucial autonomy over the privateers of global capitalism and the recovery was preserved.
Cristina pursued state interventionism à la Néstor with gusto, though with more mixed results.
Her confrontation with the powerful farmers collectives in 2008 over her decision to control exports in a bid to protect the domestic market caused a confrontation that may have spelled doomed for her fledgling presidency. But like most capable politicians she realized when the particular skirmish was lost and backed down.
The nationalization of key industries such as state energy company YPF and more recently, the railways, which had both been in less-than-ideal states of repair before, were resoundingly popular and have both been enshrined into law.
Poverty reduction continued, then stalled. It has now become a highly contentious issue and her government has not showered itself in praise by refusing to engage in a productive discussion over the current figures, which it has attempted to avoid at every opportunity as the sun set on Cristina’s eight years in office.
But taken as a whole, even if the high estimates of poverty currently being passed around are accurate, the distance come under Kirchnerism from the catastrophic social and economic collapse of the early years of the new millennium is staggering and must be applauded, whatever your political persuasion.
Human Rights (Mostly) Advanced
Today happens to be International Human Rights Day. Argentina’s current record is a patchy one, it’s true, but one radically improved since 2003.
The revoking of the amnesty laws — introduced by former President Carlos Menem — which sheltered the former murderers, torturers and baby snatchers of the last military dictatorship, surely ranks with the greatest accomplishments of the dozen-year Kirchner era.
Let’s not forget: at the time, this political move was surrounded by controversy. Those on the institutional right of Argentine politics, including new President Mauricio Macri, bitterly opposed the plan.
Not only that, Néstor’s own Vice President, one Daniel Scioli, also opposed the motion and threatened to split the newly won unity of the Peronists in the FpV.
But Kirchnerism would not be denied. The bill was passed through Congress thanks to a majority of rational and empathetic minds voting in favor of it. Then the Senate voted 43-7 (21 absentees), and finally the Supreme Court ratified it overwhelmingly, seven votes to one, in 2005.
The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, embraced by Kirchnerism in a gesture of remarkable solidarity for the last 12 years, finally began the long road to answers that started when they had taken to the streets against the 1976-1983 military dictatorship at the apex of its repression.
Argentina was subsequently showered in praise by human rights groups for confronting the abuses in its recent past head-on with a steely gaze, rather than shirking the uncomfortable responsibility of doing so and an easier short-term route. That, and the subsequent campaign of going after the abusers still couching in broad daylight, improved Argentina’s human rights record in dramatic fashion.
Today, 12 years later, all the presidential candidates vowed to continue the trials, a keystone Kirchner legacy, underlining just how popular and normalized they have become. Both main presidential candidates, who had once opposed the motion, are now, rhetorically at least, among its loudest backers.
Yet the abolition of the amnesty for former dictatorship criminals was not the only leap forward in human rights for Argentina, though it was perhaps the most revered.
The passing of the Marriage Equality Act in 2010 was surely one of Cristina’s most stunning victories in a deeply Catholic nation like Argentina, which consequently became a regional if not world leader for progressive LGBTQ legislation.
Again, she was opposed by the conservative right in vitriolic terms (including “progressive” sweetheart Pope Francis, by the way) and again, at the forefront of Kirchnerism, she prevailed.
Set against this, ongoing human rights concerns continue to be rife in Argentina, as they are sporadically across most of the region. Despite the dramatic reduction in poverty engendered by the center-left’s success in most countries in Latin America since 1999, inequality remains extremely high.
At the fore in Argentina, as The Bubble documented recently, is the ongoing violence delivered at the hands of the police and the prison system, which has remained for the most part effectively untouched by 12 years of Kirchnerite rule.
Like many Peronists before them, the Kirchners fell into the trap of playing the short-term “tough on crime” card, seeing police ranks swell during the years in power while crime from muggings to human trafficking remained a scourge (exemplified best in the populous Buenos Aires Province, where Cristina’s would-be successor Daniel Scioli ballooned police ranks massively but failed to curb crime rates to any major extent).
Add to these the deep-seated machismo culture at all levels in Argentine society, which has led directly to an epidemic of gender violence in the country, plus the continued denial of land rights to Argentina’s 1 million-strong indigenous minority groups, and the human rights record of the Kirchner era appears more tarnished than La Cámpora activists may have you believe.
Compared to just about every single Argentine government before it, though, the Kirchners’ legacy on human rights remains very impressive indeed and won stand-out international praise from rights groups.
Icons And Idols (Both Real And False)
Something perhaps inseparable from Peronism — a liquid, slippery but highly dynamic political movement that lest we forget derives directly from one iconic former President — is the emphasis placed on its figureheads and leaders.
Arriving in Argentina from outside and flipping on the television or walking down city streets for the first time, one is struck by the pervading presence of portraits, name-based political slogans and the weekly hum of Cadena Nacional presidential addresses.
This reverence for the figureheads of what has often been a progressive era for Argentina is not unique to the country, but rather endemic to greater or lesser extents in the politics of a continent still watched over by the specter of caudillismo of centuries past.
It often seems at odds with the democratic project Peronism ultimately represents, though. This is one of the underlying contradictions of the movement and has been rammed home by 12 years of Kirchnerism, mostly under Cristina, which has pushed the social movement aspect of Peronism to the fore but been equally in thrall to its flirtation with the cult of personality.
A rather unsettling adoration of the dear leader was also compounded during the Kirchner era by the fact that both her late husband before her and Cristina herself turned the presidency into a financial cash cow.
The Kirchners’ wealth exploded during their time in the Casa Rosada and leaves a bitter after taste in the mouth when compared to the ongoing scourges of malnutrition and poverty rife in the poorer regions and neighborhoods of Argentina, itself an immensely rich, G20 country.
Compare this with recently departed legend José Mujica, former President and Néstor equivalent for Uruguay who donated 90 percent of his government wage bill to social charities, lived on a farm and drove a dilapidated 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, and the Kirchners’ regional presidential stock plummets somewhat in this writer’s opinion.
Cristina’s fondness for her own voice delivered via satellite to television screens up and down the country on an all-too-regular basis will also not be missed by many, but I suspect her uncanny ability to deliver a speech will be, in time. As sinister as the authoritarian overtones and the polarizing rhetoric are, you could rarely call her leadership style and delivery boring. The technocrat tag-team of Macri and Horacio Rodríguez Larretta, on the other hand…
Cristina’s farewell speech last night was delivered with the sort of stunning virtuoso performance of oratory we have come to expect from her and which few other 21stcentury world leaders can match — let alone the new President.
It also underlined the depth of feeling towards the FpV and their outgoing heroine, despite such a poor showing at the election. The Avenida de Mayo and the surrounding streets were teeming with FpV faithful, leaping up and down and chanting in ecstasy as only Argentines can. It was a display of political engagement and consciousness utterly alien to the likes of the current author and, regardless of one’s political affiliations, was nothing short of stunning to see play out.
She ticked off all notable achievements of the last 12 years, naturally steered well clear of the failures and called on all Argentines to “defend the social conquests” made during the Kirchner-era. This piece of rhetoric in particular was well chosen and neatly summed up one of the key points about the last 12 years for Argentina.
The remarkable economic recovery, the stunning reduction in poverty, the engendering of minority and human rights defense into the political mainstream, all these things have been achieved not by simple presidential decree but by concerted political action and social activism.
Like all progressive change, the victories have each been won by a collective campaign of people coming together and demanding a change to the status quo, often in the face of staunch conservative opposition.
That the majority of these hard-won and globally renowned achievements, from the trials of former human rights abusers to the lifting of millions out of poverty since the crisis, have now ossified in the political mainstream, with the incoming regime vowing to defend them (seeing will be believing), is a testament to the successes of Kirchnerism. Despite its catalog of faults, the Kirchner administration cannot be denied these resounding achievements.