When her term as president ended last month, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner handed over a country that, for all its shortcomings, has found a stability and optimism that it long lacked. Sixteen years after meeting her briefly and coldly in an elevator, an Argentine writer pens a fond farewell to a president who he grew to see as a luxury.
The only time I saw you up close, nothing good happened. It was a cold morning in 2000; you were about to be interviewed for a radio program where I was an intern. We went up in the elevator together. When I pushed the button for the fourth floor I nodded at you with an unfriendly look on my face, and as I looked at you out of the corner of my eye a question came to my mind that was asked frequently at that time and during the ten years before that: “What would you do if you ran into (former head of the military dictatorship Jorge) Videla in an elevator?” You were not Videla, of course, but for me, a young man educated in the political and cultural atmosphere of the 90s, a supporter of the Trotskyist parties and victim of the precarious employment situation, your name, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, did not have the same implications that it has now. At the time, you were just another representative to me, a member of the party that had pardoned those who committed genocide during the dictatorship and had implemented neo-liberalism in the country: just another official of the political class shepherding us into disaster. Around that time, months after or before that cold morning, you were talking to David Vinas on a television program and you asked everyone who was not happy with the situation in the country to “participate however you can, even if it is forming your own political party, but participate to change the situation”. The scene is on YouTube and, in light of what would happen in the coming years, it is moving. Vinas interrupts to say: “Your perspective seems a bit Panglossian, you know? That kind of optimism is too much for me…” And you responded: “You know, David, I have an obligation to be optimistic. You have the obligation to be pessimistic because you are an intellectual and a critic, but I am a political activist and I want to change things and I think I am going to do it.” In defense of Vinas, and of that young nihilist who greeted you with a nasty look on his face, it must be said that at the time — with 25 percent unemployment, a government that obeyed the orders of the International Monetary Fund, a bastardized Peronist party and pseudo-progressive president allied with the right wing that a year later would flee the country by helicopter, leaving dozens dead in the streets — the option to not have hope, to not believe in anything and to underestimate the policies of the traditional parties as a tool for change was the most logical option in the world. With time, that trip up in the elevator — which would be confined to the most forgotten archives of my memory had it been with anyone else — redefined itself in my mind. It grew bigger and bigger.
I am telling you my story, Cristina, not because I think it will interest you in particular, but because I am sure it is similar to those of thousands of other young people (and not so young people) who in 2003 looked distrustfully at you and Nestor, but little by little found in the two of you at least a little light to avoid sinking into the darkness of skepticism. The first time I saw that light was through your new friends: The protesters who had faced down the policies of the devaluation and the repression of the previous governments were now engaging in dialogue with the government, and if the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo trusted your words and actions, you could not be that bad. And the second was your enemies: Each time the right wing, the military, big agriculture and large corporations said things like “here come the commies”, the panorama became clearer for me.
Despite everything good that I saw in Nestor’s government and in your government, it was not until 2008 that I could define myself as a “kirchnerista” without reservations. It was the year you confronted the savage strike by the farmers and called your government “populist” in a speech in Plaza de Mayo. That year I started a job at (the magazine) Noticias and I saw how they fabricated their cover stories and indictments of you: The editors got together at a desk, threw headlines around, chose the most scandalous one and used that as the foundation to invent stories. I did not last long at that job (I suppose my lack of predisposition to make up stories or to pressure interviewees to say what my editors wanted them to say and my signature on a petition supporting your government influenced their decision to fire me) but I stayed long enough to confirm the malice and perversion of the media outlets who complained about an alleged lack of freedom of expression while they tried to brainwash their consumers. Defining myself as “kirchnerista” and valuing all the positive measures that we already know about (the child welfare act, nationalization of pension plans, the trains, the nationalizations of (oil company) YPF and Aerolineas Argentinas, legalization of gay marriage, Procrear, the millions of people who were able to retire without paying into retirement, and long list of other things) did not turn me into a fanatic or prevent me from seeing the deficiencies and contradictions of your government (placing someone allegedly involved in crimes during the dictatorship as head of the Army, failing to pass safe and legal abortion and therefore avoid that a large number of women die in clandestine clinics every year, the lack of more solid and structural reforms in agriculture, the hundreds of fatalities from excessive force that have continued over the years, and your private fortune, among other things, make it uncomfortable for me when it comes time to defend you).
But even taking into account these deficiencies and contradictions, I would have to be rather foolish to look around and not realize that you were a luxury that this country did not deserve. Yes, Cristina, you were out of the ordinary for this country full of people steeped in hatred, full of extreme violence in the streets, on social media and in comment sections of the newspapers; a country where many, while they accused you of being a dictator, longed for the coup d’etats and military dictatorships; a country where millions say ‘the migrants in the poor neighborhoods get pregnant to collect welfare checks’; a country where the majority of the middle and lower classes are capable of voting, as they did in these elections, against their own interests and in favor of a gang of ignorant, insensitive mercenaries who do not believe in politics or government and think that governing is the same as running a company; a country where a large part of the upper class and the oligarchy think they own everything and feel that the lower classes are a nuisance and would happily return to slavery to continue hoisting one single flag, that of their own wealth, while the rest go hungry.
Yes, Cristina, your government and Nestor’s government were a luxury that many did not deserve, and maybe younger people cannot gauge your plentitude because they do not have memories of other eras. Your governments were a 12-year historical parenthesis during which time words like devaluation and repression will not be written. Tomorrow that luxury will end and you will make your grand exit. And that is why I am saying see you later and thank you for turning the government into a tool of transformation and not just an instrument of the powerful, for big business; thank you for the rights and victories; thank you for making ‘politics’ not be a dirty word; thank you for shifting political discussions from the theoretical and utopian to the concrete and quotidian; thank you for making words like justice and distribution of wealth into something more than slogans on pamphlets…
Tomorrow you are leaving, Cristina, and the Argentina you are leaving is very different than the one that existed that cold morning in 2000 when we rode up in the elevator together. And not just thanks to changes that have happened over these years, — Videla died in prison and hundreds of others who committed genocide during the dictatorship were tried and charged and now no one can run into them in an elevator — but also because there is not a general air of sorrow, nor are there so many forgotten Argentines condemned to go hungry at the mercy of the markets. And you and I are not the same as we were either. I am no longer that skeptical young man who was interested in politics in the same way he was interested in literature, as something thrilling but that did not have a direct impact on the real lives of millions of Argentines. Now I am a responsible father who stopped feeling like he was part of the brilliant vanguard, but who writes novels and works at what he loves. I would be too easy, too preachy to say that I owe my career to you, but I can affirm that the years I lived under your presidency and Nestor’s presidency were the happiest years of my life. And you, Cristina, were able to turn that “Panglossian optimism” into the most inclusive and democratic government in Argentine history. It is true that you have many pending debts and that the inequalities in the country are still vast, so true that to get where you got you had to leave behind bits of yourself. Because of this, if today I had the good fortune to ride up with you in an elevator, I would not nod at you with an unfriendly look on my face, nor would I look at you out of the corner of my eye and think about Videla. I am not sure if my nerves or time would allow me to speak very much, but I would hug you until the doors open and I would say “thank you” and, with a look, I would try to get you to understand all of this that I just wrote.
Ignacio Molina Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard
15 Jan 2016