December 6, 2013
Lost without Cristina
For the Herald
Only the president calls the shots
Institutions are boring. They also tend to get in the way of energetic people who are determined to ram through changes they think their country desperately needs. That is why the president and her underlings have done their best to sideline Congress and all those bothersome little outfits that are supposed to keep a close eye on what the government is up to and prevent it from breaking too many rules.
As a result of their efforts, underneath her increasingly threadbare democratic garments, Argentina is an autocracy. Loyal Kirchnerites make no bones about this. Their motto could hardly be more straightforward: All power to the president. The Cabinet chief, a youngish fellow whose name, in case you have forgotten, is Juan Manuel Abal Medina, said as much when Cristina was having a blood clot removed. He did his best to reassure a distraught nation by telling it “The president is the only person with power.”
Is she? Ever since it was revealed that a bevy of doctors had told Cristina she would be well advised to take it easy for a month or more because all that hard work was ruining her health, the country has been buzzing with rumours. For understandable reasons, people would like to know who is calling the shots. In theory, it should be acting president Amado Boudou, but soon after getting elected on Cristina’s ticket he became a non person, much like those communist stalwarts who suddenly vanished from the Soviet Encyclopaedia because Joe Stalin wanted them rubbed out. However, making a brave effort to show respect for Constitutional requirements, the Kirchnerites decided to let him pretend to be in charge while making sure that nobody took his performance too seriously. They could do this by broadly hinting that, should Boudou overstep the mark, they would have him dragged offstage by the police to face one of the many corruption charges that have been levelled against him.
So, while Cristina is recovering from her latest operation, who will be the real boss? The smart money is on Carlos Zannini, an insider who has been with the Kirchner family for many years and serves as the president’s “legal and technical secretary”. When younger, Zannini thought he was a Maoist as did the current President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, in his student days and evidently remains keen on “cultural revolutions”, though presumably he has left behind his taste for the chairman’s more murderous practices.
Also leading the country, as it were, in Cristina’s absence, is none other than Cristina’s eldest son, Máximo, a chubby lad who bears a distinct resemblance to the equally youthful North Korean despot, Kim Jong-un, who recently had an ex-girlfriend shot by firing squad for dancing in what he considered was an unbecoming manner.
Fortunately for all of us, Máximo, though credited with founding the Kirchner Youth, calling it La Cámpora after the famously obsequious dentist who stood in for Perón over forty years ago, seems to be an amiable bloke whose political ambitions do not extend beyond looking after his mum’s interests. For a while, imaginative onlookers made out that Cristina was grooming young Max to be her successor, a notion that may have pleased archconservatives dreaming of a hereditary monarchy, if there are any such people in Argentina. In any event, it was quickly dropped, as was the idea that Alicia Kirchner, the First Sister-in-law, who is Social Development minister, could one day head the family firm.
Boudou, Zannini and Máximo K make a distinctly unprepossessing triumvirate. For Cristina, that must be good news. Ever since rising to her present eminence, she has systematically kept at bay individuals she suspects could be talented enough or attractive enough to acquire a personal following. Her Cabinet and the upper reaches of the state bureaucracy, as well as the political organization she uses for electoral purposes, are filled with mediocrities or eccentrics who obey her every whim. And just to make sure, she has collected an assortment of businessmen, political hacks, minor celebrities and the like who accompany her everywhere in order to applaud her utterances. It is a bit like the canned laughter that provides a background to television comedy shows, but it is reliably asserted that “the applauders”, as they are known, are bona fide flesh-and-blood creatures, not something cooked up by experts in computerized special effects.
Cristina believes herself to be indispensable. It evidently pains her to think that some ungrateful compatriots are looking forward to seeing the back of her just because, under her management, the country is falling to pieces. By so arranging matters that the mere possibility that she would have to rest for a while left people wondering who was running the shop, she told them just how ridiculous it was to assume that without her things could continue much as usual.
Will the millions who voted against Cristina’s handpicked parliamentary candidates learn the lesson and change their mind before the polling booths open later this month? Edgy opposition leaders are holding their breath and praying that a sympathy vote does not have a significant impact on the results. This seems unlikely to happen but their unease is understandable. Argentina being the country it is, one never knows how its inhabitants will react after being told the president is unwell and could do with a spot of comfort.