Evita Peron’s heirs eye return to power in Argentina through ‘cult of poverty’

Evita Peron’s heirs eye return to power in Argentina through ‘cult of poverty’

Four women sat at a table sharing a gourd of maté, an Argentine tea-like drink, while a cauldron of noodles bubbled on a stove. Volunteering at a soup kitchen in Boca, a poor district of Buenos Aires, has become more demanding and upsetting by the day.

“It breaks your heart to see children going hungry,” said Selene Santos, 24. “A boy yesterday told me he never gets anything to eat at home, not even a biscuit. There are so many hungry.

”Economic crisis has pushed millions into hardship and hunger, and the prognosis for Argentina is grim: neither of the two main presidential contenders in elections next Sunday offers much hope of relief.

Instead, worse may be on the way with the return of radical Peronism, the political mass movement that has its roots in the Evita legend and Argentina’s postwar populist dictatorship.

Mauricio Macri, the conservative anti-Peronist elected with high hopes four years ago, is seeking re-election against a backdrop of rocketing inflation and debt after the collapse of his attempts to reform the economy led to the largest bailout in history from the International Monetary Fund.

Alberto Fernandez, a little-known Peronist, seems likely to win. But who will end up ruling the country —him or Cristina Kirchner, the wily former president who is running as his deputy?

Encompassing extremes of left and right, the fractious Peronists have thrived for decades on poverty and crisis in this resource-rich country since coming to power in 1946 under Juan Peron and his glamorous first lady.

Kirchner —known, like Evita Peron, for formidable political acumen —rose to power through her husband, Nestor, succeeding him as president in 2007. She dispensed largesse from government coffers, leaving under a cloud in 2015, and now faces numerous charges of corruption.

In what was seen as a clever ploy to shield herself from prosecution, she agreed to be the vice-presidential candidate while promoting Fernandez as a moderate Peronist champion to win over centrist voters who deeply mistrust her.

He was chief of staff during her husband’s presidency and the first few months of her own, but fell out with her over a deal she had signed with Iran and resigned to lead a rival wing of Peronism.

Pope Francis, a close follower of his homeland’s turbulent politics, reportedly helped to bring about the reconciliation. But Argentina is bracing itself for a battle of wills between the two factions.

A former interior minister said: “Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn violent, as it has before, with things being decided on the streets.”

Fernandez is a sensible, pragmatic and “simple” man, said Sergio Massa, one of his closest advisers. He likes rock music and walking his sheepdog, Bob Dylan, although he plays the guitar “better than he sings”.

The thought that Kirchner will quickly outmanoeuvre him has set alarm bells ringing in Washington: as president she alienated America, befriending pariah states. Venezuela’s late president, the leftist Hugo Chavez, helped to fund one of her election campaigns.

Invited recently to a secret meeting at the State Department in Washington, Massa tried to reassure US diplomatic and security officials that Fernandez, not Kirchner, would be in charge.

“He told the Americans not to worry, that Fernandez is not about to do anything crazy like defaulting on the debt and that Cristina will have zero say over his government,” said a source close to Fernandez.

The Kirchneristas may have different ideas. They have unleashed radical “fronts” and “assemblies” in daily protests in Buenos Aires to demand their share of the spoils after Sunday’s election. “We will appeal to Cristina to give us back our jobs. I’m sure she will help us,” said Jorge Eduardo, 45, one of a group of unemployed marchers heading through the city’s theatre district to a vast sculpture of Evita Peron.

This faith is key to Peronism’s longevity. For Loris Zanatta, a specialist in populism at Bologna University, the Peronists always made the poor their priority, but not necessarily to get rid of poverty.

He argues that they and their supporters in the church created a “cult of the poor”: if the poor vote for Peronism in the belief that it puts their interests first, the party will always be best served if they stay poor and dependent on the state.

“Peronism lives off the poor. They never talk about the emancipation of the poor. Prosperity is a threat to them,” Zanatta said.

Roberto Lavagna, another centrist Peronist running for president, sees an endless cycle in Argentine life: populists loosen fiscal controls, ruining the economy, and are replaced by reformists, who are overthrown after imposing austerity measures.

“We move permanently between extremes,” Lavagna said. “There’s never a balance.” He speaks from experience. After bank runs and riots forced President Fernando de la Rua to escape by helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace in 2001, Lavagna became the economy minister and was credited with pulling the nation out of the abyss before the Kirchners took over.

“The wellbeing of people is always higher and they are better off after a Peronist  government ends in failure than when the conservatives fail,” Lavagna said. “People tend to end up saying, ‘I lived better in Peronist times.’”

Kirchner herself reflected on the spiral of despair —without referring to her own role in it —as she signed copies of her latest book in Buenos Aires province last week. “Argentina gets in debt, then defaults on its debt, then becomes indebted —and then another default. We must discuss this so that it never happens again,” she said.

Likely president will demand return of Falklands

The prospect of a return of the nationalist Peronists to power in Argentina is reviving the dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands, writes Matthew Campbell.

Cristina Kirchner, the last Peronist president —who is standing as vice-president in next Sunday’s election —stirred old antagonisms with Britain while in office. Under her successor, Mauricio Macri, relations improved.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps to understand that we each have a claim over the Malvinas [Falklands],” Jorge Faurie, his foreign minister, said last week.

There were talks about fishing, air links and identifying Argentine soldiers’ remains from the 1982 Falklands conflict.

Alberto Fernandez, the Peronist presidential candidate, has reopened the sovereignty debate on the campaign trail, reportedly accusing Macri of ignoring the 649 men Argentina lost in the conflict.

“The government was very busy trading with Britain and forgot about our sovereignty over the Malvinas,” he was quoted as saying. “But in memory of those soldiers I’ll make sure things are different.”

Sergio Massa, an adviser to Fernandez, told The Sunday Times: “It’s very important to respect our vision that Argentina has sovereignty over the islands.”

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