Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, is a remarkable individual by any measure. The first woman to be elected president of her country, her tenure has seen the enactment of the first same-sex marriage law on the continent and the establishment of a Ministry of Science, Technology, and Productive Innovation. She’s been a forceful leader, unafraid to make controversial decisions in the face of strong opposition.
However, the choices she makes are increasingly the wrong ones. And the cause of this seems to be personal, not political.
Nowhere was this more on display than at the talk that President Kirchner offered at the Harvard Kennedy School on September 27, where she delivered an address and took questions from the audience. The event was highly anticipated, given that Kirchner usually spurns attempts by journalists to ask questions. She seems to have a vitriolic dislike of journalists in general. When one student remarked that, under the circumstances, he felt fortunate to talk to her, she dismissively replied, “You can’t repeat what two or three journalists write.” Well, journalists point out the truth. That’s more or less their job. Judging by Kirchner’s actions, which have severely curbed freedom of the press in Argentina, that’s not something she’s comfortable with.
Let’s get back to the talk, however. At first, I was pleased to have landed a front-row seat, giving me an unobstructed view of President Kirchner. When the question-and-answer session started, however, I quickly wished I were someplace else. The manner in which she responded to pointed, critical queries made me cringe in my seat, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Following some of her statements, the entire room let out a gasp, as if to express, “She did not just say that.”
One audience member, who identified himself as an Argentine student at the Kennedy School, asked Kirchner why Colombia and other regional neighbors are capable of economic growth without currency controls, while Argentina’s economy is stagnant with such measures in place. Currency controls do, in fact, exist in Argentina, and they are a serious cause of concern for many members of Argentine society. These days, the real estate market in Buenos Aires is basically paralyzed, as properties cannot be bought and sold in dollars—only the notoriously unstable peso.
So how did President Kirchner respond to this student? “We’re at Harvard. Come on, please. Those things are not from Harvard,” she sentenced, her voice dripping with exasperation. In her view, since this particular Argentine studies abroad and has access to dollars, he had no right to pose such a question. “You think you can really talk about these currency problems?”
To call her response disrespectful would be a euphemism. Whether this young man lives abroad or not is irrelevant—as an Argentine citizen, he has the right and duty to express concern about an issue that impacts his family, his friends, and his country at large. This aside, however, the president’s abrupt dismissal of his question by means of an ad hominem attack suggests something about the way her intellect functions. Kirchner’s initial reaction to any criticism—her only reaction, perhaps—is emotional rather than rational. She’s an intelligent woman; she was perfectly capable of a well-reasoned, respectful response to the question. Yet she felt the immediate need to assert her power rather than justify the way she’s using it.
Need another example? When another student asked if Argentina’s economic and security woes meant it was time for some self-criticism, she sarcastically said she expected better questions from an Ivy League audience. Once again, Kirchner turned a constructive debate into negative mudslinging.
I don’t mean to draw my conclusions solely from one public appearance. Rather, this event merely confirmed the media’s portrayal of President Kirchner as a testy, autocratic populist. Many Argentines joke that their country is a “dedocracy,” from the Spanish word for finger, because her fingerprints are on every government action. She has surrounded herself with a small circle of laughably incompetent advisors, providing herself with an environment in which no one contests her final word. Kirchner actually spent most of the summer waging what many perceive as a campaign of vendetta against Daniel O. Scioli, the popular governor of the province of Buenos Aires, who suggested that he might compete in the next presidential elections. Ironically, he belongs to the same political party as her.
This, then, is the image of herself that President Kirchner left us with at Harvard. Arrogant? Certainly. Narcissistic? Don’t doubt it. Megalomaniac? That might be going a bit too far, but she’s certainly on the right track.
The irony of my position isn’t lost on me—I’m criticizing President Kirchner in personal terms for her personal attacks on others. The problem is that, for Kirchner, the political and the personal are no longer separate. Until she learns that they are, she’ll capsize her country along with her personal reputation.
Jorge A. Araya ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.