When Cristina Fernández de Kirchner won the Argentinian presidency by a landslide in 2007, her campaign may have benefited from the popularity of the outgoing president – her husband, Néstor. But the current President Kirchner is a veteran politician in her own right, long established as an independent Argentinian voice.
Kirchner was born in La Plata, near Buenos Aires. As a student, she gravitated towards the left wing of the Justicialist Party, founded by Juan and Eva Perón. She quickly became active in the Perónist Youth group (which was affiliated with the militant Montoneros guerrillas); but as the country fell to military rule in 1976, she dropped out of politics, moving to Patagonia to practise law. It was under the military junta that Argentina went to war with Britain over the Falklands, or Las Malvinas. And it was the junta that “disappeared” many of Kirchner’s former comrades. She did not return to political life until after the regime collapsed in 1983, following military defeat.
A provincial, and then a national, deputy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kirchner had become an outspoken senator by 1995. In 2003, while holding the seat for Santa Cruz, she also acted as the backbone of her husband’s successful presidential campaign. By that time, both Kirchners had moved to the centre left – and she has since rejected the militant left-wing “elitism” of the revolutionary 1970s.
As first lady, Kirchner gained the reputation she retains as president for being as well-dressed as she is politically strident. She makes no apologies for her glamorous, carefully constructed – some suggest surgically altered – appearance, on one occasion asking: “Would I have to dress like I was poor in order to be a good political leader?” Her powerful speeches have brought comparisons with Eva Perón, and as president, her fierce responses to any affront to national sovereignty have been tougher than those of her husband. She has said that the US acts as if it “wants countries as employees and subordinates” rather than friends, and elicited an embarrassed apology from the head of the CIA after he questioned Argentina’s stability. Yet she maintains relatively good relations with Washington.
Kirchner’s poll ratings have dropped since taking office – they were hit particularly hard by a failed attempt to extract more tax revenues from agriculture for the cash-strapped state – but she remains a respected and skilful player in Latin American politics. She works successfully with moderates and conservatives, as well as left-wing leaders. When, after a dispute in 2008, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela apologised to Germany’s Angela Merkel, he said: “I’m doing this in front of Cristina, because every time I behave badly, she’s the one who pulls my ears.”
On her views about the Falklands, Kirchner has been typically direct. In London last year for the G20 summit, she gave a speech announcing her wish to “reaffirm once again our sovereign right over the Malvinas Islands”. For Argentinians, this rallying cry is uncontroversial. Kirchner’s view that “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” is common to those of virtually every political persuasion. And with support from a Latin America more united than ever, she is determined to gain leverage over the UK: even if the war for the islands three decades ago was waged by a dictatorship that kidnapped her friends.