By Adrian Bono, Argentina, The Bubble:
The last time Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was seen in public, she was dancing on stage at the Plaza de Mayo, in downtown Buenos Aires. It was December 10th, and the Government was celebrating the 30th anniversary since the return of democracy with fireworks and music despite criticism from opposition leaders who said the festive environment was in poor taste, given that most provinces in the country were dealing with a wave of looting, sparked by a series of police strikes, that threatened to tear the very fabric of society. The defenseless population in Córdoba and San Miguel de Tucumán – among other cities – had no choice but to arm themselves with whatever weapon they had at hand to protect their property.
The conflict left over ten people dead, but it was not going to spoil the jubilee. Despite calls to postpone – or at least tone down – the festivities, the Government refused to back down. The result was a shocking display of disconnect, with TV screens split into two: one showing the chaos born out of the absence of law and order; the other showing the joy and fervor exhibited by Government officials dancing and mingling with celebrities on stage before a large crowd of Kirchnerite supporters who had decided to attend to so-called “party of democracy.”
With the exception of a brief appearance at the Casa Rosada presidential palace to appoint Lieutenant General César Milani as the new chief of the Army on December 19, that was the last time the President of Argentina was seen on TV or in public. For an omnipresent head of state used to addressing the population on a quasi-daily basis, her sudden stage fight was strikingly odd.
A few days later, Cristina flew to her home in the Patagonian town of El Calafate for the holidays. That was when Buenos Aires, which had managed to remain immune to the chaos of the police strikes, was hit by its worst heat wave in history. For two weeks, people in the city and the Greater Buenos Aires area had to deal with temperatures well above 30°C (86°F), which put a severe strain on the power grid, as the people turned to their air conditioners for relief. The result was a series of blackouts that left a large part of the local population in the dark for days (even on Christmas). Frustration began to grow not only towards power companies Edenor and Edesur, but also towards a government that had allowed them to put off any potential improvement to the power grid.
Mayor Mauricio Macri, whose party is at odds with the administration, decided to cut his vacations short and returned to Buenos Aires, where he declared a state of emergency in the City. A political move, no doubt, but at least he tried to save face. Cristina, however, failed to materialize before the crowds.
In fact, it was Cabinet Chief (Chief of Staff) Jorge Capitanich who acted as an impromptu medium and channeled her voice during his daily press briefings, to such an extent that many on Twitter began referring to him as “acting president Capitanich.” During those days of chaotic darkness, it was he who seemed to adopt the role of commander in chief.
Cristina returned to Buenos Aires on January 7th and has so far held several meetings with various Cabinet members, although away from the public eye. And this is causing great confusion in the population, who feel that the country is currently adrift.
Argentina is a hyper-presidentialist country. Cristina Fernández has built her image as an ever present head of state. Before undergoing brain surgery last October, she would appear on TV almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and could turn the most insignificant government ceremony into a compelling political rally, making her current absence that much more noticeable. She was also a master in the arts of social media. With over 2.5 million followers on Twitter, Cristina would regularly embark on Twitter rants to explain why she favored a certain policy and why her opponents were against it, all while circumventing the media and avoiding the hassle of talking to unnecessary intermediaries who could water down her message. But her opinionated voice has even gone silent on the microblogging site. It has now been over a month since the President’s last tweet.
And yet the National Government continues to keep the population guessing, since no official announcement has been made to address her prolonged silence.
A few hypotheses that attempt to explain what lies behind her decision to go dark: Some believe that even though doctors cleared her to return to work after a 30-day post-op recovery, she is still trying to regain some of her vigor and is using the less frantic summer months to rest. Others believe that after her party took a serious beating in the October midterms she is trying to keep a low profile and letting her Cabinet run things temporarily to avoid additional Cristina fatigue.
This could be a possibility since those working close to her who are brave enough to whisper behind her back repeat that whenever she feels like she’s not in control of the situation she chooses to retreat until the storm has passed. A perfect example of this is the Once train accident that left over 50 people dead almost two years ago in Buenos Aires, a tragedy that many blamed the Government for. It took Cristina five days to appear in public and address the accident while attending an unrelated ceremony, even though many had been calling for her earlier words of sympathy.
After a less than stellar performance in the midterm elections – with her approval rating below the 30% mark – rampant inflation that private estimates say was between 28% and 30% last year, a Central Bank whose foreign currency reserves are disappearing before our eyes, and several cases of corruption smearing her administration, it wouldn’t be surprising if she were just waiting for the dust to settle.
But in government, perception is everything.
Even if she were indeed just focusing on picking up the pieces and gaining strength, the presidential communication machine is doing a horrible job at handling her decision to stay off the grid. Instead of addressing it directly, the Cabinet ignores it completely or changes the subject fast when confronted with the media. The more they try to frame the situation within the boundaries of normalcy, the more suspicion grows outside the presidential entourage.
When Oscar Parrilli, secretary general of the presidency, was recently asked about her prolonged absence, he simply replied that she would return to the public scene whenever she deemed it convenient. Although he said that she’s working as hard as ever, this sudden “leading from behind” attitude was not well received by the mayors in the Greater Buenos Aires area who, according to local newspaper La Nación, have begun exhibiting certain levels of anxiety.
Confusion has also grown after some glaring – and very public – contradictions between Capitanich and other members of the Cabinet. In his two months in office, the Cabinet Chief has had to backtrack four times on his earlier statements already, projecting a high level of miscommunication in the administration and suggesting that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
While the Cabinet scrambles to maintain some sort of cohesion, the only constant is the President’s name, which keeps being mentioned by ministers as if to remind people that despite her absence she’s as present as ever.
Argentina has a tough year ahead. Wall Street projects that the country’s GDP will only grow between 1 and 2 percent in 2014, and with an inflation rate nearing 30 percent, most unions are warning that they will be asking for at least a 35 percent hike in salaries while holding their collective bargaining talks – roughly double of what the National Government was willing to support.
It is unclear when the President will reappear in public, but as she enters her lame duck period in absentia, some mayors in the Buenos Aires province – the largest electoral district in the country – are quietly cutting loose as they begin planning their political future in a post-Kirchnerite world.
Argentines, however, have no choice but to wait for her return and trust their Government officials when they say that the President’s leadership is as visible as ever, even though this time she is nowhere to be seen. By Adrian Bono, Argentina, The Bubble
When the province of Córdoba spiraled out of control, the very fabric of society tore apart. A sudden absence of law and order sent people into a looting frenzy. Residents and store owners boarded up windows, grabbed shotguns, and climbed to their roofs, waiting for the encounter with the enemy. Read….What the Hell Just Happened in Córdoba?