Monday, October 22, 2007


The presidential election is coming up in a few days in Argentina. Cristina Kirchner is likely to win. She is Nestor Kirchner’s wife, and you can see how easy it is to draw analogies. She has been called a cross between Hillary Clinton and Evita. Granted my knowledge of both Evita and Cristina is limited, but this seems to me like a comparison of trivial surface features and nothing more. The bookstores are full of books on Cristina, and one female journalist has referred to her as “Queen Cristina,” the new Evita – so the comparison has to be dealt with. This is what happens when people buy books by people like Barbara Walters and believe they are getting some insight into things.

Nestor Kirchner, from what I can tell, is riding the crest of the wave of economic success since the disastrous collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. Argentina is a bustling place and Buenos Aires is a sparkling jewel and the economy is growing at an astonishing rate of 8%. Kirchner has managed to keep the peso tied to the dollar, and the consequences of that are a stable economy, my sources tell me, and for that he deserves credit. But most of the people I talk to also tell me Kirchner is an opportunist who has done nothing to change the weaknesses in the political infrastructure. There are no political platforms and Kirchner is following in the path established by Perón. He runs the country on image, and there is no foundation, no ideological basis for enhancing democracy and the rule of law. He keeps the peso low, and that helps exports. Argentina has great beef, great wine, the exporters are happy as clams, and the country taxes those exports and uses the money to build supporters the old fashioned way: Kirchner buys them.

Cristina Kirchner will keep the ball rolling, and there is reason to believe the party will go on through the night and into the morning. Fine. What’s wrong with that?

Well, there are signs that all is not well. Kirchner managed to manipulate the figures to suggest he was controlling inflation – always one of Argentina’s concerns – when in reality he was not, and this hardly inspires confidence. He has buddy-buddied up with Hugo Chávez, and that ain’t pretty. Even less pretty is his support in Washington a few weeks ago for Bush's suggestion of a possible invasion of Iran. All of this suggests opportunism, as opposed to political conviction and a commitment to democracy.

But wait, I say. There is another side. Kirchner has the left solidly behind him. Página 12, the leading leftie newspaper, is a solid supporter. Página 12's founder and leading journalist, Horacio Verbitzky, is an leading voice for the Madres, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, those heroic women who refused to stay quiet during the dictatorship, but marched in front of the presidential palace, the “Pink House,” every week without fail demanding to know what happened to their "disappeared" children, for all the years of the terror. Verbitzky and his newspaper probably did the most to keep the story alive of the capture and trial of Cristian von Wernich, the priest accused of complicity in the kidnapping and torture and killing of leftist opposition to the dictatorship.

Página 12 is a dog with a bone. Philosopher Leon Rozitchner had an essay in the paper yesterday charging that human justice is still threatened by an Argentine Church position which uses the concept of divine justice to support military dictatorship. The debate has muscles and there is reason for optimism. When von Wernich was found guilty, the country was glued to the television – well OK, at least I watched the entire day – and when the sentence was read – life in prison for the crime of genocide – I felt like bawling my head off. And I wished I had found my way to La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province, where the trial was held, to join in the jubilation and enjoy the fireworks.

Kirchner is somebody for the country to rally round, in other words. When Alfonsín led the overthrow of the militarist dictatorship, he was still too weak to resist the imposition of two laws known as the Ley de Punto Final (Full Stop Law) and the Ley de Obediencia Debida (Due Obedience Law). These laws were essentially a pardon for some 1000 militarists against whom cases had been built for crimes against humanity. This surrender to pressure was voided by Congress in 2003 and that action was approved by the Supreme Court in 2005, both during Nestor Kirchner’s administration, and he thus feels justified in claiming full credit for it. The voiding of the two laws has already led to the conviction of Miguel Etchecolatz, the head of the Buenos Aires provincial police force during the terror, known here as the “Dirty War.”

It’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon. The mood is good, the trial of von Wernich was tremendously satisfying, and Argentina has moved in the past decade from being a fascist nation with a terrorist government to a leading Latin American voice in the struggle for human rights. A couple of days ago, Cristina Kirchner supporter Vilma Ibarra, Senator for the city of Buenos Aires, proposed in Congress a law which would move Argentina a step further toward full recognition of gay marriage rights, following the model of Spain.

I can’t be sure how much support this bill will have – the conservative paper La Nación came out with the usual catholic argument the next day in one of its editorials that this bill is an insult to the family, to Argentine tradition, etc. etc., but the fact remains it was proposed – and by a supporter of the leading candidate for president. The Kirchneristas have a case when they choose to represent themselves as human rights advocates.

One can only watch and see where this all goes. The election will not tell much, I suspect, other than it’s hard to unseat somebody who is in the right place at the right time – never mind whether he’s making the waves or merely riding them. But if dirty priests go to jail, and if the bishops who provided cover for them – von Wernich was given a false name and a parish in Chile with full support of the church – get their knuckles rapped at the very least, and if movies appear on television like the one coming tonight about the recovery of one of the kidnapped children, why not join the bandwagon?

Just keep your eyes open and know the bandwagon may run out of gas before long. Or collapse with the weight of too many opportunists who work without conviction.

But what else is there to do at this point?

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