Argentina's Leader Can't Talk Her Way Out of This One
For anyone despairing of finding an escape route for Argentina's gathering economic and political crises, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has a strategy: talk.
After weeks of radio silence, many of them spent in Patagonia, she returned to the spotlight Sunday to deliver a thumping state of the union speech to congress. Three hours and 39 minutes later -- more than double the run-time of the 2011 edition and nearly three times that of her inaugural speech of 2008 -- she covered every talking point on the River Plate, leaving no foe unstoned.
Those angry prosecutors, who filled the streets two weeks ago to demand justice for Alberto Nisman? Nothing but a would-be "judicial party" trying to leapfrog the constitution. "The AMIA case cannot be used as a political instrument," she lectured.
The forest of placards demanding that the perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack ever on South American soil be brought to trial? "Look somewhere else," she parried, claiming she had done everything in her power to get to the bottom of the 21-year-old mystery.
Gone was the national leader cornered by critics and tumbling in the polls. Back came the polemicist-in-chief, at home on the balcony, spinning debacle as virtue and criticism as betrayal.
The economy may be in recession and the country roiled by its worst political crisis in nearly a decade. On March 3, half a dozen more bondholders piggybacked on aggressive hedge fund Elliott Management Corp.'s claim to be paid in full rather than swallow the 70 percent write-off that Argentina imposed on most of its foreign lenders during the debt restructuring of 2005 and 2010.
But you wouldn't have guessed anything was awry from the gauntlet of loyalists thronging the Avenida de Mayo for a glimpse of the presidential convoy or the applause coursing through the parliamentary building during her speech.
If Fernandez's final state of the union was a billboard for the remaining nine months of her lame duck term, then don't look to the high road. Look instead for the no-surrender, no-compromise policies that have been the watermark of what Argentines call the "K years," starting with the severe haircut her late husband Nestor imposed on Argentina's foreign creditors, and later extending to Cristina's smackdown with independent media.
Blame it on Argentina's overheated politics. Though barred from seeking another term of office, Fernandez has her sights on electing her chosen successor, Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, now fighting an uphill three-way race. Apparently, she's convinced that going out in a blaze of nationalism will scan better at the ballot box than parsimony and peacemaking.
Argentines will have their say in October. Until then, the country's economic mess will be harder to talk through. Private sector analysts say the economy is flat and inflation more than 20 percent. Until recently, the Casa Rosada might have taken comfort in creative accounting, but last year the ever-obliging national statistics bureau was forced to scrap its feel-good numbers and overhaul its inflation index on pain of penalty by the International Monetary Fund or even expulsion from its ranks.
With the country in technical default on $100 billion in foreign debt, and so frozen out of the international credit market, the government might be eager to find a peaceful solution to its decade-long battle with creditors.
Not Fernandez. According to her, Argentina had defied both the "vultures" and the economic bears, "who predicted that we would all go to hell," she said. Instead, the country not only prevailed but thrived with robust "Christmas sales and holidays, and everyone flocking to national tourist destinations," she said.
Argentines might be forgiven for seeing things differently. This year Argentina was ranked the second most miserable nation on Bloomberg's misery index, trailing only Venezuela, which is flirting with failed-nation status. That's something that talk won't fix.
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