Cristina Fernández de Kirchner cares a great deal about appearances, especially her own. She dresses impeccably, wearing only carefully chosen designer outfits. She exercises almost daily and carefully watches her weight. Before becoming president, she even had a Pilates machine installed at the presidential residence in Olivos. She has had collagen injected into her lips to give them a fuller, more vibrant look. She spends around an 1hr a day dressing and applying makeup, according to a person who used to work with her.
To get an idea of how much makeup the president uses, contrast the images you've seen of her with the following photo, which was taken, sans makeup, back in November.
Of course, none of this is particularly relevant to what kind of person Cristina is or how effective she may or not be as a president. Indeed, even discussing such things seems superficial and unworthy of serious reflection. Nonetheless, Cristina has received intense criticism for supposedly caring more about symbolism than substance. So the question arises: Is there any merit to the criticism?
Much of it dates back to the early days of Cristina's 2005 Buenos Aires senate campaign. Before that, Cristina was a national senator from Santa Cruz Province, where she had been involved in local politics since 1989. In 2005 she pulled a Hillary Clinton and carpet-bagged her way to Buenos Aires Province, where she trounced former first lady Hilda “Chiche” Duhalde. Cristina won the election without granting any interviews to local media. Nor did she offer any insight into what policies she might pursue as a Buenos Aires senator. This provided ammunition to critics who said she won the election based largely on her image. It was, they said, a triumph of symbolism over substance.
Since then, the criticism has mounted. Last year Cristina ran to replace her husband, Nestor, and became Argentina's first democratically elected female president. With the exception of a few interviews given in the last 48 hours of the campaign, she again managed to win an election without discussing any policies. What did she think about inflation? What did she think about Argentina's relationship with Venezuela and the U.S.? What did she think about the state of health care in public hospitals? How about her husband's handling of agriculture policy? What did she think about Argentina's little-mentioned energy crisis? Nobody knew because, as a presidential candidate, she said nothing specific about any of this. The answers were as unclear then as they are now.
What was known about Cristina was that she was articulate, intelligent, passionate, evidently angry and somewhat rancorous, hostile toward the press and, well, impeccably dressed.
Cryptically, her campaign slogan was limited to this: “We know what needs to be done. We know how to do it.” That left many people asking, “What needs to be done?” and “How will she do it?” Cristina did not answer. Five months after she took office, we still do not know. Apparently, nobody does.
“She has no plan,” the president of a large industrial company told me this week. “There are no plans. They don't exist. They (in the government) are managing everything on a day to day basis. Nobody knows what their plans are because they don't know what their plans are. It's not that they have a secret plan for everything. They have no plan for anything. Many of the things the government says are simply for the press, for mass consumption, for show.”
Symbolism appears to play an important role in everyday government decisions. This is true in all governments, of course. But in the Kirchner administration symbolism does not appear to be accompanied by any kind of substantive or strategic policy planning.
Last week the government carried out the most recent round of half-hearted and eventually fruitless negotiations with farmers over the country's agricultural conflict. (For those who have been absent for the past two months, the conflict's catalyst was a government decision to raise farm export taxes.) During the talks, Presidential Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernández told farmers that the president was willing to reduce export taxes. “But we can negotiate this only if you wait until May 25,” Fernández said. “We can't do that,” replied one of the farm leaders. “We've been waiting more than a month for you to give us an answer about this. Why should we wait any longer, especially if there is no guarantee that anything will change on the 25th?” Fernández had no answer.
The talks broke down and the rest is history. Farmers began a second major national strike and are now again protesting the export taxes. Fernández knew this would happen. Farm leaders told him explicitly that it would. Presumably, Fernández relayed their admonition to Cristina Kirchner, who also knew it would happen. So why did the government insist on waiting until May 25 to announce it w
ould cut export taxes?
There are myriad possibilities. First, perhaps Cristina was so focused on the symbolic importance of May 25, the country's anniversary, that she refused to budge. Second, maybe it was just pure stubbornness. Cristina reportedly has been waiting since January to announce cabinet changes that would distance her administration from that of her husband. She also has been planning for months to announce a grand social and economic plan, supposedly aimed at curtailing inflation and salary disputes while guaranteeing economic growth.
But those plans, if they ever existed, were interrupted by unexpected news that a U.S. prosecutor was investigating the illegal transfer of $800,000 from Venezuela to Argentina, allegedly for use in Cristina's presidential campaign. That news, as well as Cristina's explosive reaction to it, set off weeks of scandal that completely distracted attention from whatever plans she might have had for her cabinet and the economy. She may be tired of having other people and circumstances dictate her agenda.
Third, she may be seeking to wear out farmers through endless talks while she waits (and hopes) for public opinion to turn against farmers. Fourth, perhaps it was a combination of all three factors. Fifth, Cristina may have wanted to lower export taxes before May 25 but feared that doing so would have made her look weak, subjecting her to further protests from other groups who want concessions from the government.
Finally, perhaps Cristina is not actually in command. Many local analysts believe that it is Nestor Kirchner, not Cristina, who is actually dictating the government's approach to the farm crisis. “I want to see the farmers on their knees,” Kirchner has been quoted as saying.
I have no particular insight into the First Couple and do not know how, if at all, they divide power. But it is clear that many key political figures believe the former president retains much of the power he held when he sat in the famous Sillón de Rivadavia (the presidential chair). Meanwhile, two of the farm leaders who negotiated with Alberto Fernández said they believed it was Nestor, and not Cristina, who was the driving force behind the negotiations.
Regardless of which, if any, of these options explain the government's conduct, it is clear that the administration told farmers that if they wanted lower export taxes, they would have to wait until May 25 to find out how they would be reduced. Because of this, it seems reasonable to conclude that the government imposed a relatively arbitrary, but symbolically important, date on negotiations with farmers. This, even though the government knew that doing so would lead to a second farm strike and cost the government hundreds of millions in lost revenue.
Meanwhile, in another symbolic gesture, Cristina cancelled a planned visit to Cordoba, where she had planned to appear at an event alongside Fiat Argentina President (and celebrity photo hog) Cristian Rattazzi and Cordoba Governor Juan Schiaretti. The event, which was set for next week, was supposed to bring the three together to announce that Fiat would invest $300 million to produce auto parts and motors. Cristina declined to attend the event because she did not want to appear publicly next to Governor Schiaretti, who earlier this week said the government should lower farm export taxes.
Fiat suspended the event. Of course, this event was symbolic from the very outset. Fiat's investment will occur regardless of whether Fiat makes an announcement next week. But the symbolism is particularly important now because Argentina is having a hard time attracting investment. The event would have been a perfect opportunity for Cristina to show that:
1) despite political differences with Schiaretti, she is a democratic leader capable of working with people who disagree with her
2) the farm conflict has not brought everything in the country to a standstill
3) the government and private sector firms are still going about business
4) despite the strike, and a precipitous decline in the government's approval ratings, Argentina is able to attract investment
The benefits of appearing next to Schiaretti would have outweighed the risks. But Cristina, evidently, did not see it this way. Was she afraid that going to Cordoba would unwisely reward Schiaretti for his intellectual and political independence? Was she afraid that doing so would give other politicians pause and lead them to believe that they too might be able to think and behave independently? It is not certain, but this seems like a reasonable interpretation. What does appear clear is that Cristina cancelled a long-planned symbolic event because she did not like what it might symbolize. If this is not a triumph of symbolism over substance, what is?
Link: Brief Official Biography of Cristina Kirchner (in Spanish)
UPDATE: Argentine news site MinutoUno published the following photo, entitled “Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The worst dressed (leader) at the Summit?”. I'm posting it here just for kicks. If we're going to be superficial, we might as well admit that the grey pants are truly atrocious.