Argentina's New President Has a Legacy to Overcome: Her Husband's

Cristina Fern¿ndez de Kirchner campaigned for president pledging change, but has been slow to alter the policies of her predecessor.
Cristina Fern¿ndez de Kirchner campaigned for president pledging change, but has been slow to alter the policies of her predecessor. (By Diego Levy -- Bloomberg News)
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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 7, 2008

BUENOS AIRES -- The sun is shining later in Argentina than ever before.

The credit, or the blame, belongs to newly elected President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. During a recent heat wave, she set the country's clocks forward an hour, giving Argentines an extra hour of daylight in the evening -- a reprieve from the chronic power outages that have plunged thousands into sweltering summer darkness.

But the move forward made a lot of Argentines look back. The energy shortage is considered by many to be an unhappy consequence of the celebrated economic policies of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. His decision to cap electricity prices for consumers drove up demand and limited the public money available for upgrades and expansions.

In that way, the blackouts capture the central early-term challenge for Fernández de Kirchner: How does Argentina's first female president in three decades confront the political legacy of her husband?

"The energy crisis is the government's fault, because they never think about the long term -- but I still support Cristina," said Ernesto Nuñez, 51, of La Matanza, a community just outside Buenos Aires. "She's going to have to make some changes with the way things are going, but they should be minor ones. Nothing too big."

Before he draped the presidential sash over his wife on Dec. 10, N¿stor Kirchner told the country to forget about him for a while, musing that his new life as "first gentleman" might allow him to drift away from the public stage. "I'm going to go off to a literary cafe, thank you very much," he quipped last year.

But his table still awaits him.

When a scandal erupted in December involving an alleged payment from Venezuela's traditionally friendly government to Fernández de Kirchner's presidential campaign, it was Néstor Kirchner who stridently came to the aid of his wife.

Displaying a brand of ire Argentines got to know well during his term, he angrily snapped that "Argentina is not a colony" of the United States. Now, it appears that the dominant Peronist party, whose most powerful member is his wife, will select him as its leader next month.

"There was an expectation that Néstor Kirchner would disappear for a while, and he very clearly has not done that," said Felipe Noguera, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. "It raises the question: 'Who's really in charge here?' Things haven't changed at all, and some of the problems left over from her husband's term are now gathering heat."

No one is suggesting that Fernández de Kirchner, popularly known just as Cristina, isn't actively leading the country. Even though discussions about frivolities such as her designer dresses, expensive handbags and even her eye makeup can seem like a national pastime, few believe she lacks political know-how. She was, after all, a prominent senator before her husband became president.

She is no Isabel Perón -- who took over as an unprepared president after her husband, Juan Perón, died in 1974 -- but she has encouraged comparisons to Perón's previous wife, known as Evita, who is still revered by Argentines for her combination of strong character and glamour.

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