Argentina_s leader populist, but no longer popular

Last weekend, Fern__ndez de Kirchner published a long and irate letter on her Facebook page criticizing Oscar-winn...
Last weekend, Fern__ndez de Kirchner published a long and irate letter on her Facebook page criticizing Oscar-winning actor Ricardo Dar__n _ this country_s most popular actor, and one of the most beloved ones _ for telling a show-business magazine that she should reveal the source of her fortune.

In an interview with Brando magazine, Dar__n had wondered aloud about the sources of the president_s wealth, which according to the daily La Naci__n has soared by 1,155 percent, to about $19 million since her late husband Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003.

Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s Jan. 6 response to Dar__n in an angry 22-paragraph letter she published on Facebook _ and promoted several times on her Twitter page _ lashed out against those who question her honesty, and in turn accused Dar__n of having been charged and arrested by a judge in 1991 for smuggling a station wagon into the country.

Dar__n subsequently told reporters that the president had had misrepresented his case, and that a judge had acquitted him of any wrongdoing. But by then, the front pages of Argentina_s largest independent newspapers were exploding with statements of support for Dar__n from show business stars and leading intellectuals.

Doesn_t the president have more important things to do than responding to a passing comment by an actor in a show-business magazine? many asked. And, more important, shouldn_t the president clear the matter by answering how she managed to multiply her wealth while in office, others wondered.

On Tuesday, a new scandal hit the headlines: the president had leased a British-made Global Express 7000 jet for a trip to Cuba and Asia, to avoid Argentina_s creditors from seizing the presidential plane.

Late last year, a judge in Ghana, responding to claims by Argentina_s bond holders in New York, had seized Argentina_s navy school frigate _Libertad._ The ship was released months later and arrived Wednesday in Argentina, where the government prepared a massive welcome in hopes of turning an international embarrassment into a political victory.

But Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s troubles go way beyond the latest headlines. Huge pot-banging anti-government demonstrations late last year against government corruption and official currency exchange controls surprised even government officials, and Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s popularity has fallen to 30 percent, according to recent polls.

What most irks many Argentines is Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s habit of demonizing all critics as public enemies, and her government_s systematic lying about everything from crime statistics to poverty and inflation rates.

While independent economists agree that Argentina_s inflation is 25 percent _ among the world_s highest _ the government-run INDEC statistics_ institute maintains it_s of only 9.7 percent. This should _go the Guinness Book of Records__ of statistical hogwash,_ wrote former INDEC statistics director Victor Beker in the daily Clar__n earlier this week.

Argentina_s economy is likely to grow by 3 percent this year, thanks to high international prices for Argentina_s soybean exports that will temporarily prolong Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s _soja y suerte_ (_soybeans and luck_) economic formula. But that_s way below the country_s 9 percent growth rates in recent years.

And the president_s apparent plan to change the Constitution and seek re-election in 2015 is running into growing difficulties. Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s legal crusade to silence the independent Clar__n media group long before legislative elections this October _ which officials hope will elect a new Congress that could rewrite elections laws and allow the president_s reelection _ has not yet been approved by the courts.

My opinion: Time is running against Argentina_s president. If her crusade to silence the Clar__n media group doesn_t succeed by mid-2013, Fern__ndez de Kirchner_s re-election drive will look increasingly unlikely. That, in turn, will embolden growing numbers of journalists, politicians and judges to turn against her.

Fern__ndez de Kirchner, a charismatic speaker, could still reverse her declining popularity if she called for a national dialogue, stopped insulting critics and abandoned the Venezuelan model of constantly creating confrontations with real or imagined enemies _ whether it_s the media, the business community or foreign countries _ to justify the accumulation of absolute powers. But so far, as her letter to Dar__n shows, she doesn_t seem to be getting the message that presidents should be accountable to their people, and not the other way around.


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