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November 29, 2014
Sunday, January 12, 2014

Cristina and Axel

Minister of Economy Axel Kicillof during a press conference.
By James Neilson
For the Herald

How long will it be before things turn sour?

Legend has it that, on becoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher invited the members of her Cabinet, all of them men in respectable dark suits, to an expensive restaurant for lunch. When the waiter asked her what she would like, she told him veal would do just fine. “And the vegetables?” he inquired. “They will have the same,” the iron lady replied. Cristina’s style is much like the one attributed to Maggie. In her upstairs-downstairs world, she is the boss and her underlings are mere servants who had better obey her orders, or else.

But she does have her favourites. While in her good books, they can get away with almost anything, as did Guillermo Moreno for several years and Amado Boudou for a couple of months. But then, suddenly, she decides to dump them. Poor old Moreno is still griping in public about the way Cristina treated him. When Jorge Capitanich finally tires of getting his knuckles rapped for talking out of order, he too will tell us how hard it was to work for such a demanding employer.

So, how will Axel Kicillof, her current favourite, fare? Unless he is very lucky, the day will soon come when she blames him for all her many problems. She certainly needs someone she can kick when things go badly wrong, as they surely will long before December 2015 finally arrives.

Kicillof has been entrusted with the task of piloting Argentina’s leaky economy through the shark-infested and storm-lashed waters that lie ahead. Blessed with supreme confidence in his own ability, the lad leapt at the chance she gave him as eagerly as did Domingo Cavallo when Fernando de la Rúa begged him to save Argentina from ruin. Despite his hyperkinetic efforts, Mingo proved unable to keep the country afloat. Though the current situation is less alarming than the one that undid De la Rúa, it is bad enough, so Kicillof is in for some very testing times.

When the Cabinet was reshuffled, it was widely assumed that Capitanich would be the man to keep chaos as bay, but Kicillof beat him to it. It was always inevitable that the two would clash not just because both are ambitious characters on the make, but also because their points of view are radically different. Capitanich is widely regarded as a man who, like Daniel Scioli and Mauricio Macri, thinks the economy should be run on straightforward capitalist lines. It was expected that he would set about persuading Cristina to forget all that populist nonsense she filled her head with when she was a student in La Plata U back in the 1970s and start behaving like a normal 21st century politician. Perhaps he did give it a shot; if so, she refused to listen.

Kicillof favours a very different approach. He is a rebel against anything that to his mind smacks of conservative “neo-classical” orthodoxy. In academe, an agreeable place where he made a name for himself, he was considered by some a Marxist and by others a devoted admirer of Lord Keynes who, needless to say, had little time for Bolshevik nostrums. Be that as it may, on his way up Kicillof made no bones about his belief that the State should run the economy, on occasion expressed a hearty contempt for the rule of law and, like Cristina and her late husband, appears to think inflation is just a word used by neoliberals out to scare good progressives into doing their bidding. To stop prices rising, he has put his faith in yet another social pact that nobody else expects to work. He is clearly a competent intriguer who has made the most of his relationship with Cristina to fill government posts with his La Cámpora friends, elbowing out individuals suspected of working for his rivals.

Since becoming economy minister, Kicillof has done his best to behave in what, for a man who greatly enjoys needling the bourgeoisie, is a very cautious manner. Perhaps he appreciates that one mistake too many could have some decidedly unpleasant consequences for a country that is already on its uppers and desperately needs money.

But Cristina did not appoint Kicillof because she thinks he is a safe pair of hands. What she really wants is to show the world that Peronist economic theory is infinitely superior to the stuff cooked up by the dreary “orthodox” crowd whose thinking has been adopted by those hapless foreigners in Europe, the US, Japan, and the technocrats of such malevolent outfits as the International Monetary Fund. She sees herself as the leader of a crusade against “neoliberalism”, a heresy that many people, including her one-time archenemy Pope Francis, seem to think is responsible for everything nasty in today’s world.

To get where he currently is, Kicillof must have told Cristina that she is right, everyone else is wrong, and that, thanks to her brilliance and his willingness to help her, the Argentine economy will soon start performing as it did before she took office. Cristina approves of such positive thinking. That is why she likes to be surrounded be courtiers who flatter her by applauding her every utterance. It is also why she risks going down in history as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history. Had Cristina, who may be obstinate but is by no means stupid, been forced to work within a proper institutional framework, she could have done just as well as her counterparts in Chile and Brazil but, unfortunately for her, and for the rest of us, she found herself left to her own devices and was encouraged by her obsequious entourage to indulge all her whims, with results that have already proved disastrous and could soon become far worse.

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