A year after Argentina commemorated the first anniversary of the tragic train crash that killed 51 people and injured 600 others, President Cristina Kirchner continues to dress in black.
Yet it is noteworthy that on this anniversary the president dressed in black not to mourn the country’s loss but rather to mourn her own.
The president’s husband and predecessor in power, Nestor Kirchner, died in October, 2010, and Mrs. Kirchner has donned dark attire ever since.
The train wreck, which occurred at the Once de Septiembre station in Buenos Aires, became for many a symbol of everything that is wrong with Argentina – corruption, greed, abuse of power, incompetence, injustice. Many people, especially critics of the government, accused the Kirchner administration of spending billions on a public transportation system that is, by all accounts, worse off now than it has been in years.
One of the things that bothered people about the tragedy was the fact that the president avoided all mention of it for five days. As each day passed, her silence seemed even more inexplicable. She completely ignored the event, behaving as if it hadn’t happened. Her silence on the subject was, to use a literary cliché, deafening.
Then, when the president finally did discuss the issue, she did so in comments that were largely self-referencial and political in nature. In a nationally televised speech, she spoke in a way that put the emphasis on herself as a victim.
“I know what death is and I know what pain is, and I won’t put up with those who take advantage of such tragedy and such pain,” the president said. “Don’t expect demagogic or easy speeches from me. I’ve never done that and I’m not going to do it now, much less amid death. Look, I’ve got thick skin. Look at all the trash talk and insults I’ve had to put up with – more than any other leader, more than any other president has had to put up with. But it is a pity that people speculate about these things.”
Critics accused the president of using her first speech since the tragedy to be political instead simply being human. Many people wanted her to deliver an empathetic speech that solemnly focused on the victims and sought to unite Argentines in a non-political way, even if for just a moment. Instead, it seemed like just another political speech. But, of course, it was not.
It is remarkable today, a year later, that the president, in her comments and outward attire, continues to focus on her own loss at a time when the country is focused on its collective loss. The tragedy of Once was a national tragedy, a national loss.
In a speech Thursday, the president again referred to her own personal loss, placing it in the context of the train wreck anniversary. She offered a hug to the victims and their families.
“I know that the loss of a loved one is unrecoverable and irreparable; nobody can compensate for it, nobody can repair it. But, well, the justice system is there to surely determine the responsibilities. But even so, with justice, with some kind of economic reparation or whatever, life does not come back. The life of a loved one, of a human being is something that’s very valuable and very painful to lose. So, here’s a hug for all of them.”
The reference to the tragedy was a very minor part of a much longer speech in which the president launched a new state-run, high definition sports TV station and in which she criticized the mayor of Buenos Aires for cutting down trees. By minimizing the tragedy in her speech, the president seemed to be minimizing its significance for Argentines.
The reaction from victims was swift and poignant. In comments made Friday night, on the anniversary of the tragedy, Paolo Menghini y Luján Rey, whose son Lucas was killed in the tragedy, read a statement about it.
“Last night, as happened five days after the disaster, the president remembered us with a message that was more hurtful than silence itself,” Luján said. “She remembered us with a solidary hug that came too late. Our pain isn’t the result of just a bad moment in life, as she expressed in her speech, but rather it was the product of the inaction of her own government. The massacre of innocents isn’t just a sad moment, it’s the product of corruption…”
These comments implicitly question the president’s constant references to her own loss. Mrs. Kirchner refers to her personal loss and personal pain in many, perhaps most, of her public speeches. Former President Nestor Kirchner’s death was tragic in the sense that all deaths are tragic, but it wasn’t tragic in the sense that the train tragedy was. It wasn’t tragic in the sense that parents are supposed to die before their children do. Mr. Kirchner lost his life too soon, dealing a severe blow to his family and to everyone in the country that loved him. But it was a natural death. It wasn’t caused by the negligence of others, much less that of the state. His death was unfair and unjust in the same way that life is unfair and unjust. The universe can be cruel. But it was not the result of an injustice or an unfair society. No person or entity was culpable for his death and therefore society does not cry out for justice as a result.
The train tragedy is very different in this sense. People believe the loss of life at the Once train station was not the product of an unfair universe but rather the direct result of irresponsible behavior. In this view, the loss of life could have been avoided, should have been avoided. People demand justice and they want guarantees that this kind of tragedy will not happen again, at least not because of corruption or greed or abuse of power or incompetence.
The president’s supporters may find a great deal of empathy in her speeches and her references to her own personal loss. They may see in the president someone who knows pain, who understands death and loss and who is all too aware of how hard life and be. In this view, Mrs. Kirchner is better able than many to offer compassion and support to the victims of the train accident and their families.
The president’s detractors, in contrast, may find the president’s comments hollow. One woman described her frustration this way (I am paraphrasing).
We have all suffered loss. If you live long enough, you have friends die. Your parents die. Your brothers and sisters die. Your loved ones pass away. It’s the natural order of things. That’s life. We all die. Nobody has a monopoly on pain or suffering or on the right to feel bad and depressed and sad about death. The president has every right to feel pain and suffer from the loss of her husband. I would too. Nobody has the right to take that away from her. But she needs to think about how compatible her ongoing public demonstration of personal loss is with the needs of those who suffered the loss of life at Once.
Which leads to the question: What do the president’s continual references to her own loss and continued use of black clothing say to others who have also suffered?
By constantly focusing on her own loss, the president seems to be missing an opportunity to focus on the country’s bigger loss, not just the loss of life at Once but the loss of trust in government, in society and in the justice system.
By continuing to wear black, the president seems to be saying that attention still needs to be focused on her husband’s death. If Mrs. Kirchner were a private figure, her comments and choice of clothing would go unnoticed and would not affect the national culture or its mood or direction. But as president, she represents Argentines at all times. Sets the national conversation and, to some degree, the national mood.
If the president is unable to overcome her personal loss and to express joy, how can she expect the victims of the train tragedy to do so? How can the president inspire and uplift these victims, and the nation that mourns with them, if she continues to express through her words and clothing that she continues to be overwhelmed by her own personal loss. If, years after her husband’s death, the president’s daily attire continues to be pitch black, how can she lead the victims of the train tragedy to a more colorful future? How can she help to brighten the nation’s life if she continues to literally wallow in darkness?