A New Evita Rises in Argentina

When victory was declared on Oct. 27, the twin 10-story monumental portraits of Eva Duarte de Perón that hover above Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires were lit up against the night sky for the first time since Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left the presidency in 2015.

A Peronist miracle had taken place, and what seemed unthinkable during the four years the party spent in the opposition became real: Argentine voters again crowned Mrs. Kirchner the country’s political queen. Even with 11 corruption cases piled up against her, the former two-term president regained the pinnacle, this time by running as vice president alongside Alberto Fernández, a former ally (and also longtime foe).

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” goes the song from the old musical. Indeed, tears, drama and the nation of Argentina have been inseparable since the life of Evita, as Eva Perón was known to her fans, became the subject of a hit Broadway show. About three decades earlier, as Argentina’s first lady, she wielded great political influence both as a champion of the poor and as the fashionable wife of Gen. Juan Domingo Perón, the president.

Under the Peróns, polarization between supporters and opponents took hold of the country’s political consciousness. A similar divide opened up during Mrs. Kirchner’s presidential tenure, from 2007 to 2015. It still dominates the national conversation today.

Not since Evita has a woman held so much concentrated power for so long — or become so entangled in the country’s present — as Mrs. Kirchner. The parallels are clear, and she does not shy away from drawing on them. Each woman started out as an ambitious, energetic first lady before rising in status alongside her husband. For Mrs. Kirchner, whose husband and predecessor was Néstor Kirchner, politics was an intensely personal journey, shaped both by those who support her and those who oppose her.

President-elect Alberto Fernández and his running mate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner greet supporters in Buenos Aires on Oct. 27, 2019. (Agustin Marcarian/Reuters)

 

Instrumental in her ascent to power was the spousal devotion that Evita Perón had made central to her own image. “Everything that I am, everything I have, everything I think and everything I feel is because of Perón,” Evita said of her husband in her autobiography, “La Razón de Mi Vida” (“My Mission in Life”).

Evita embodied the conservative role of the woman for whom marriage is sanctity, and the husband a godlike entity. This outlook suffuses Mrs. Kirchner’s attitude of superiority over other women in power today; during her campaign, she belittled Maria Eugenia Vidal, the outgoing governor of Buenos Aires Province — who is divorced — over her marital status.

In her memoir published this year, “Sinceramente” (“Sincerely”), Mrs. Kirchner suggested that President Mauricio Macri and his wife (both of whom have been divorced and remarried) do not fit the image of the perfect family they are made out to be. She made comparisons to her own union with Mr. Kirchner, which was the only marriage for both and lasted 35 years, until his death in 2010.

A boy waves an Argentine flag with an image of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the reopening of a sports venue in Buenos Aires Province. The venue was renamed in honor of the former president’s late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. (Alejandro Pagni/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Recently, Mrs. Kirchner has expanded her views on issues related to feminism. During her nearly decade-long tenure as president she opposed the legalization of abortion. When the press asked her how she felt about so-called women’s issues, she famously declared that she is “a Peronist, not a feminist.”

When the grass-roots women’s rights movement Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) started out in 2015 with a huge street protest  against the rise in gender-related killings of women, Mrs. Kirchner was the sitting president. She later wrote that she had seen Ni Una Menos as an opposition force. Then, in 2018, apparently moved by the global hue and cry of both Ni Una Menos and the #MeToo movement, Mr. Macri opened up a national debate over a bill that would have allowed abortion. This time, seemingly enthused by her role in the opposition, Mrs. Kirchner voted in favor of legalization.

The former president understands the dynamics of power like no one else in Argentina. If Evita — whose untimely death from cancer added to her myth — was revered as a supporter of the downtrodden, Mrs. Kirchner crafts her allure as the resilient widow who survives it all: the death of Mr. Kirchner, the corruption charges, the growing list of traitors. In fact, Mr. Fernández, the president-elect, had become a foe when he left his post as Mrs. Kirchner’s cabinet chief in 2008 to organize a new Peronism without her.

For a while Mr. Fernández, along with Mrs. Kirchner’s other political enemies, aimed to weaken her, disparaging her and her coalition in political rallies and on television shows. The power held by La Señora did not waver, however. She maintains control of 35 percent of the voting base, with the densely populated, low-income suburbs of Buenos Aires at the heart of her support. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Eventually, Mr. Fernández came around to kiss Mrs. Kirchner’s ring.

A master of theatrics much like Evita, Mrs. Kirchner has reinvented herself as an author. It’s a move that demonstrates how she considers her actions reflected in the mirror of history. Her book tour for “Sinceramente” was her recent campaign, and at these events she could be seen signing copies and speaking directly to her faithful followers.

Mrs. Kirchner’s world is shaped by the fight between the forces of evil and the guardians of the good (the latter of course are on Team Cristina). In her view, she is locked in a battle against legal overreach and her persecution in the courts. In fighting the corruption investigations, she continues to paint herself as a champion of the people, a soldier of mythical status not unlike Evita herself. For Mrs. Kirchner, it is a conflict that, by design, keeps her in power.

In facing the many obstacles to her return to power, Mrs. Kirchner provided an answer to a pressing question in feminism today: What do we do with men? She has opted to turn her husband into a Peronist martyr. In this respect, Mrs. Kirchner has followed the lead of Juan Perón, not Evita. Néstor Kirchner has been transformed into a quasi-religious figure — much like General Perón once transformed his own wife into an icon — so that Mrs. Kirchner can get down to business. It’s her way of saying: Goodbye, Néstor. Now I rule.

How long can the illusion last?

© 2019 Pola Oloixarac. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

Argentine novelist and the author of “Savage Theories”