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September 2, 2014
Sunday, January 26, 2014

It is still Cristina country

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner pictured at the Pink House on Wednesday.
By James Neilson
For the Herald

No doubts the president is calling the shots

For several years now, Argentina has been a one-woman show. It still is. Even when Cristina takes some time off and neglects her Twitter account, the country continues to revolve around her. For more than a month, politicians and commentators did their best to fill the vacuum she left by talking about her absence and what it may, or may not, have meant. When she turned up again, as she did last Wednesday, the less charitable among them said she might as well have stayed away. Apart from promising to give unemployed and, in all too many cases, unemployable young people enough money to buy a small cup of coffee a day in the hope it would encourage them to resume their studies, she merely let it be known that she was in no mood to forgive her many critics. That was not exactly news.

For Cristina herself, it must be very gratifying to know that Argentines cannot live without her, that they keep talking about her when she is away, that a single presidential wink will attract more attention than any opposition harangue. For the rest of the country, the feeling that everything depends on the whims of a lady who gives the impression of being strangely disconnected from the real world should be disturbing. While the president was putting on her makeup in preparation for her long-awaited reappearance before the cameras, the peso lost a large chunk of its value on both the official and the black markets, Central Bank reserves fell yet again and people accustomed to buying goods from abroad online were told to limit themselves to two items per person per year though, luckily for polyglots and specialists in arcane subjects, it seems that foreign books will continue to be allowed in.

Fascinating as Cristina’s psychodrama may be, the country has rather more on its plate than her periodic ups and downs. As last week’s events reminded us, the economy is slithering downhill at an alarming rate. The French have a word, which occasionally crops up in English, to describe what is happening: dégringolade. If there are any Kirchnerite Francophiles among us, they will know what it means. It is used when a political and economic system suddenly crumbles without anyone in power managing to restore a modicum of stability. Government officials pull what they assume are the appropriate levers, but for reasons that escape them there is no response. No matter how often they devalue the peso, the legal version cannot catch up with the runaway blue. They are surely aware that the accelerating increase in the cost of living will have a disastrous effect on Cristina’s clientele in Greater Buenos Aires, but they lack the money they would need to cushion the impact. All they can do is cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Some imagine that if they manage to hold out until March, money from farm exports will pour in to save them. That in itself is dispiriting: it means that, as was the case over a century ago, Argentina’s prospects depend on the proceeds from the next harvest. Ironically, Cristina and her “militant” supporters are dead against what they call the “agroexporting model” on ideological principle, but over ten years of strenuous effort by them has only strengthened it. Had it not been for soybeans, the Kirchnerite “project” would have bit the dust long ago.

The cash flow is drying up. Economy Minister Axel Kicillof’s attempt to persuade the Chinese to cough up a couple of billion dollars to invest in energy came to nothing. It would seem that the Paris Club proved equally immune to the boyish charms that worked so splendidly with Cristina. Not surprisingly, the creditor nations, let by the habitually hard-nosed Japanese and Germans who, as bad luck would have it, are owed the most, have their doubts about Argentina’s ability to stick to a three-year repayment plan. By next month, or even by tomorrow, it could be out of date. The leaders of some of the 19 countries involved may think that it would be worth their while to be nice to Argentina because in the long term it could be in their interest to do so, but first they would like to see how the short-term turns out. In other words, they are waiting until Cristina’s government is history.

Opposition strategists share their scepticism. They too fear the economy is cracking up. But they are in no hurry to speed Cristina’s departure. Though the lady herself likes to accuse the opposition of plotting her downfall, many alleged coup-mongers say they are determined to make her stay in office until the entire economy has collapsed so there can be no doubt as to who was responsible for the disaster. Of course, that is not the only reason. They all know perfectly well that Cristina’s successor will have to apply an extremely painful austerity programme. While interim president, Eduardo Duhalde managed to get away with one because it was generally agreed that he was not to blame for the mess the country found itself in. Opposition hopefuls want to be given the same leeway even though, for that to happen, Argentina’s economy would have to go into meltdown with Cristina still in the Pink House and not, as Kirchnerites would presumably prefer, several weeks after she decided that enough is enough and her compatriots no longer deserved to be ruled by her.

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