BOGOTA, Colombia — Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner underwent a successful surgical procedure Tuesday to remove a blood clot close to her brain as her enforced absence threatens to generate political uncertainty in the country she has dominated for years.
“The operation went very well,” Alfredo Scoccimarro, her spokesman, told well-wishers outside the Favaloro Foundation clinic in Buenos Aires. “The president is in her room. She is in very good spirits. She said hello to everyone.”
The surgery, designed to drain blood and relieve pressure inside Fernández’s skull after a head injury that the government has not described, comes at a particularly challenging time for the 60-year-old populist leader.
According to Argentine media reports, Fernández will need weeks, perhaps months, to recuperate. That will probably leave the reins of government in the hands of Vice President Amado Boudou, although he is under investigation over allegations of corruption and illegal enrichment and is deeply unpopular.
“What happens is that he’s [an acting] president who lacks legitimacy because he’s a man who’s being questioned about corruption,” Ricardo Gil Lavedra, an opposition congressman, said by phone from Buenos Aires. “So this is not the best person to take charge of the government at this time.”
Scoccimarro, the presidential spokesman, did not respond to a phone call or an e-mail seeking comment.
Fernández will be unable to campaign ahead of midterm elections set for Oct. 27. Her Peronist party and its allies face an uphill battle to retain control of the National Congress. That control has made it easier for the government to enact unorthodox economic policies that rely on generous state spending and heavy state intervention.
Argentina also suffered a reversal Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by its government in its fight to avoid paying bondholders more than a decade after the country defaulted on its $100 billion debt, the world’s largest in history. Earlier, a lower U.S. court had ruled that Argentina must fully pay those creditors who had refused to take part in a debt restructuring that doled out 25 to 29 cents to the dollar.
That setback comes on top of efforts to cope with a 25 percent inflation rate and tight currency controls that have angered Argentines. Fernández, who was reelected in a landslide in 2011, has seen her approval rating fall to 33.5 percent.
“A number of problems are reaching the boiling point,” said Arturo Porzecanski, a professor of international economics at American University who closely follows Argentina.
“It ain’t Venezuela yet,” he added, referring to that oil-rich country’s dysfunctional economy, “but the unhappiness with her reflects real discontent with the economy and with all kinds of other things.”
A former senator, Fernández became prominent as her husband and predecessor as president, the late Nestor Kirchner, guided Argentina out of its economic morass after the debt default. Buoyed by China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for soy and other agricultural products, the Argentine economy grew fast, with Kirchner and then Fernández, who succeeded him in 2007, directing the windfall to social programs and subsidies.
But in Fernández’s second term, the economy has struggled as state intervention squelched investment and China’s slowdown depressed demand for Argentine products. Her government has also fought off disgruntled creditors demanding payment, causing friction with the Obama administration.
Economists predict that Argentina will grow a scant 3 percent this year, far below the 9 percent that buoyed Fernández in 2010. The forecast for next year is worse, less than 2 percent, said Dante Sica, director of the Abeceb consultancy in Buenos Aires.
“We are entering a cycle of low growth and high inflation,” Sica said. “Seven of 10 Argentines are now against the government. And I think it’s because of the economic deterioration and the lower expectations.”
The government is also almost sure to face an emboldened opposition after some of the president’s closest allies were defeated in August primaries. The ruling coalition is now bracing for a loss of influence in the upcoming congressional elections.
“They will continue being the first minority, but they won’t be the majority, so it will be a much more balanced congress,” said Lavedra, the opposition lawmaker, referring to the Oct. 27 vote.
Meanwhile, the support that some government officials once thought they had to push through a constitutional referendum measure allowing Fernández to run for a third term has evaporated. Porzecanski said it all shows how quickly a politician can lose influence in Argentina.
“The Argentine people are very fickle,” the American University professor said. “They love you one moment, hate you the next. And this is exactly what is happening to her.”