"The Lady"

Argentinean President Fernández de Kirchner is enjoying a new wave of popularity following the expropriation of Repsol's stake in YPF and despite her refusal to consult with the Cabinet

Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during her inauguration last December.
Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner during her inauguration last December.B. ÁVILA (REUTERS)

"The Lady" doesn't hold Cabinet meetings, nor does she give interviews or hold press conferences in Argentina. But "the Lady" does deliver between two and four speeches a week. One day she will address her supporters at the opening of a faenadora (meat-packing) plant; later you can find her speaking again at the unveiling of a poultry factory.

Her speeches can be peppered with veiled threats and wry references, as was the case when she announced the expropriation of the Spanish oil firm Repsol's stake in the local YPF affiliate, and on a previous occasion when she opened a box of Milka chocolate bars to celebrate the fact that the popular European brand was now made in Argentina. Many correctly viewed it as a hint at the nationalization of YPF, which occurred the following week.

Together, the speeches she has made since November 9, 2012 would fill 600 sheets of paper. Her manner of promoting her own government's image is never questioned, not even by her ministers who, much like her, don't give interviews. But when they speak about President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, they always refer to her as "the Lady."

A lot of Argentinean journalists have become rather like "Kremlinologists," studying her every move and gesture to see whether they can make some sense of what direction she will take. If there wasn't a peep from Fernández de Kirchner for many weeks while her new Vice President Amado Boudou was being investigated for alleged influence peddling in the Ciccone case printing-press scandal, it was because she was ready to drop him, they figured. This would explain why she gave him a cool greeting during the opening of the congressional term on March 1.

She delivers up to four speeches a week but never holds Cabinet meetings

Peronist insiders say that "the Lady's" son, Máximo Kirchner, head of the powerful youth organization La Cámpora, had it in for Boudou after he learned that the vice president referred to his mother as la gorda (the fat one). It looked like it was all over for Boudou. But one day Boudou appeared before the press, attacking the judge and prosecutor in the Ciccone case, if refusing to take questions. A few days later, the chief prosecutor resigned and the judge was taken off the case; "the Lady," without saying a word, offered Boudou her protective shield.

It appears the Argentinean electorate doesn't really care whether their president holds Cabinet meetings or press conferences. One staunch Kirchnerist, the philosopher José Pablo Feinmann, says: "The question about the lack of Cabinet meetings hints at whether we are being governed by a caudilla. But the answer is: she has another style of governing. Menem had Cabinet meetings but then again he sold off the entire country."

There are millions of people who share Feinmann's views - people who are convinced Fernández and her late husband, the former President Néstor Kirchner, have introduced policies to push Argentina away from having to rely on traditional markets. There are others who are proud of what the president has accomplished, such as the introduction of gay marriage during her mandate and demanding the country's former military rulers stand trial for crimes committed during the 1976-83 dictatorship.

Her public shows of compassion have also made her popular. After 51 people died and dozens were injured during a commuter-train accident on February 22 in Buenos Aires, the president not only met with the survivors and family of the victims, she went into mourning for six days.

Journalists act like "Kremlinologists," studying her every move and gesture

"Don't expect anything more from me during this painful period. I know what death entails. I know what it is to be in pain, and I don't tolerate those who want to take advantage of this huge tragedy and so much pain," she said.

Last year, Fernández de Kirchner won a second mandate with 54 percent of the vote, breaking the 51-percent record held by Raúl Alfonsín, who won the first election after the return to democracy in 1983. Feinmann says Fernández reminds many Argentineans of Evita Perón. "They used to insult Evita, calling her 'the old mare;' they say the same about Cristina. But this is because of the macho attitude that still prevails here. A lot of upper-class women are resentful of her because they know they will never accomplish what she has accomplished, be as pretty as her, or ever become president of the republic," he adds.

A month later and the train tragedy and ongoing investigation were pushed to the back pages - there were more pressing matters to report, ones that could have deep implications for Argentina's future investment climate. The governors of 10 provinces began retaking concessions from Repsol in fields within their jurisdictions. They had long complained, echoing the central government's concerns, that Repsol was not pumping in enough investment or hiking production to meet energy demands.

A concerned Repsol chairman Antonio Brufau flew to Buenos Aires but was kept waiting at the door of Casa Rosada; "the Lady" refused to meet him. But just days before, she was keen on receiving singer Roger Waters and actor Sean Penn. "The ministers and governors tell you: 'the Lady likes this, the Lady doesn't like this," Brufau complained just days before the expropriation. "But when you asked them if they have personally spoken to the Lady, the answer is no. Hardly anyone speaks to her, except her son Máximo and [deputy Economy Minister] Axel Kicillof."

Upper-class women resent her; they will never accomplish what she has done"

After the popular expropriation of YPF from Repsol, the only thing that could darken "the Lady's" horizon would be if Hugo Moyano, the boss of the all-powerful Peronist CGT union, called a general strike, as he has threatened, to demand salary increases. She didn't invite Moyano to a massive political rally held last week at a Buenos Aires stadium.

"We have seen many presidents come and go," said one advisor close to Moyano. "The Lady is now acting as if she were a goddess of some sort. But it would be wise for her to learn something that all union officials have learned early on: before you start a war, you have to see what armaments you have, as well as to know when to call off the war."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS