President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner followed in the footsteps of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, bringing in a new leftist wave of populism to Argentina. Kirchner’s efforts to censor the media, degrade autonomous institutions, and silence opposition highlight her contributions to erode Argentinian democracy. Further, I contend that her “subtle” brand of populism left a damaging impact on Argentinian democracy that has carried on in the following administration.
With the incoming shift of leftist populism in Latin America, Cristina Kirchner seemed to fly under the radar as a populist threat because of highly publicized civil rights violations occurring in neighboring countries. Although figures like Chavez and Morales captured more of the media’s attention, the Kirchner administration should not have been overlooked. Kirchner mirrored many of the same unsuccessful economic policies as Chavez and used similar appeals with impoverished citizens to attract more voters.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, In How Democracies Die, would likely argue that Cristina Kirchner exemplifies all four of the implicating signs of an authoritarian ruler. Kirchner has little issue bending the rules in government to fit her needs or project the right image of her administration. She actively works to silence political adversaries and those who threaten her rule, even resorting to violence. In addition to mere political opponents, she is known to censor the media. Those who publish unflattering articles are threatened with mob violence and anti-trust violations. Kirchner fails to give her citizens access to a free and fair press, a necessary component of modern democracies.
Kirchner enjoys a wide array of support from low-income earners and the middle class allowing her presidency to look like a rule of common people. Like populist president Hugo Chavez, she practiced a clientelist approach when administering social services, providing resources for votes. She utilizes her voters to protect her image and claims them as the true people of Argentina. She can further disguise her consolidation of power through the support from other branches. During her presidency, she held majority support in Congress and from provincial mayors, allowing her to act with little government opposition.
Those who did oppose her were not granted legitimacy in their opinions. She dismissed criticism as a threat to Argentina and never regarded it as healthy discourse. She attacked private capitalists over economic policy disagreements, especially those espousing neoliberal reforms. In addition to her dismissing political opposition, she extinguished the exposure of her corruption, especially in regard to the largest scandal of her political career. Kirchner is said to have conspired with Iran in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires killing 85 people. Furthermore, there are allegations regarding her involvement in the murder of the lead investigator in this case, Alberto Lisman. Currently, she is facing 5 corruption charges excluding her conspiracy of murder and terrorism.
In addition to silencing the opposition, rampant corruption, and degrading important separate institutions, Kirchner also attempted to increase her hold on power and make the Argentinian government more central. Under the Kirchner administration, there was a turn to re-nationalization in order to have more control over the economy and Argentina as a whole. Similar to Venezuela, she re-nationalized the pension system and Aerolineas Argentinas, implementing old ISI policies. The inefficient nationalized corporations increased the power of the state in the economy and contributed to the economic turmoil under the Kirchner administration.
While the economy eroded in Argentina, Cristina Kirchner worked tirelessly to keep the public unaware of the disaster. Her administration forced the National Institute for Statistics and the Census to report lower than accurate inflation statistics to the general public. A lack of transparency was a commonality in the Kirchner administration, eroding the importance of an accessible and accountable government. Cristina Kirchner also fired the president of the Central Bank, which is not a power granted to the President of Argentina. This is evidence of both undermining those who opposed her economic policy and eroding autonomous institutions.
Many of these infractions and corruption charges, that have now been publicized, were not fully available during her presidency. Even today, many of her constituents feel that her presidency was a success. Regardless of facing many corruption charges, Kirchner has immunity as a newly elected senator. In addition to her immunity, judges in Argentina have the autonomy to decide which cases are taken, who goes to trial, and the overall time frame of the cases. Therefore, Kirchner facing prison time would be atypical for Argentina, due to judicial bias.
The election in 2015, marks a shift in addressing corruption in Argentina, and there appears to be a democratic revival. Newly elected president Mauricio Macri has taken a special interest in tracking the assets of officials and exposing corruption. Although there is support behind the president’s actions, some are skeptical about the motives behind these arrests and policy reforms. Many, if not all, of the individuals currently facing corruption charges, appear to be the president’s opposition. Although many of the charges appear to be necessary, the new surge in trials could be another political attempt to silence one’s enemies; a populist approach, proving the current administration to be more similar to the Kirchner administration that plagued the past.
Under Cristina Kirchner, populist rule degraded the country of Argentina. The people faced bitter economic decline and were kept in the dark about the state of the economy and the rampant financial corruption. Speaking out against the apparent problems was met with violence and attempts to mute discourse. Institutions, including the National Bank and independent economic research groups, were undermined. Kirchner also navigated around the constitution and the law, most notably with a mysterious death of investigator Nisman.
The Kirchner brand of “subtle” populism could only be considered “subtle” when comparing it to the dictatorial populism in Venezuela. Even with the new political climate of moderate-right rule and the emphasis on anti-corruption policies, those being persecuted raise red flags about the current president. The Kirchner administration’s excessive corruption appears to finally be seeing the light of day. But the new administration’s emphasis on “justice” could be a ploy to delegitimize any political opposition, which wouldn’t be much of a shift from Kirchner. Macri’s new found “transparency of government” could be a blatant continuation of Kirchner’s threats to opponents in a shinier new package.
- Blitzer, Jonathan. “Argentina’s Kirchner Era Ends.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/argentinas-kirchner-era-ends.
- Briscoe, Ivan “Argentina: a crisis of riches.” OpenDemocracy, www.opendemocracy.net/article/argentina-a-crisis-of-riches
- Franko, Patrice M., and Patrice M. Franko. The Puzzle of Latin American Economic Development. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
- Kingstone, Peter R. The Political Economy of Latin America Routledge, 2011, Ch. 4.
- Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2018.
- Politi, Daniel. “Judge Seeks Arrest of Ex-President of Argentina on Treason Charges.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/world/americas/argentina-kirchner-nisman-treason-murder.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FKirchner%2C Cristina Fern%C3%A1ndez de&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection.
- Photo by Enrique Marcarian, Newsweek “Former Argentina President Fernandez Indicted for Nuns and Guns Scandal.”
- Weyland, Kurt. “Why Latin America Is Becoming Less Democratic.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 July 2013, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/why-latin-america-is-becoming-less-democratic/277803/.