As Argentine Peso Falters, President Keeps a Low Profile.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner spoke in public just once in the six weeks before the currency plunge last week that set off global concerns about the fragility of developing economies. As her country’s currency began its slide, she spoke about a subsidy for schoolchildren instead.
Then, after the steepest drop in the Argentine peso since the country’s economy collapsed over a decade ago, Mrs. Kirchner steered clear of the turmoil yet again, flying to Cuba for a summit meeting. Once there, she avoided mentioning the simmering crisis almost entirely, opting to send Twitter messages about meeting Fidel Castro’s grandchildren. Only later did she post a few Twitter messages attributing Argentina’s market upheaval to “speculative pressures” by unnamed economic groups and banks
“The president does not feel she owes any explanation to the citizenry as a whole,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at the New School for Social Research in New York.
The problems in Argentina have quickly turned it into a symbol of the economic pressures building on developing countries, stirring fears that the trouble could spread if global demand for commodities wanes and investors look for better bets in the United States.
The peso plunged 15 percent on Jan. 22 and 23, from around 6.9 pesos to the dollar to 8 pesos, according to Bloomberg News, and has since stablized. It closed on Friday at 8 pesos to the dollar. It weakened by a total of 19 percent in January.
Many economists say that the trouble here stems from the decisions Mrs. Kirchner and her government have championed for years. She describes her politics as “national and popular,” referring to efforts to promote national interests and industry, and to put in place policies that reach out to the masses.
Generous social spending after the economic collapse, like freezing household electricity rates, has widened Argentina’s budget deficit, encouraged energy consumption and increased the country’s dependence on energy imports, eroding the central bank’s hard currency reserves. Inflation is so high that it has become a heated political issue, with economists saying it exceeded 28 percent in 2013 and officials insisting it was 10.9 percent.
Now Mrs. Kirchner’s recent absences from Argentina’s political scene have left her without much of a public defense and fueled a debate over whether a power vacuum is emerging — a striking contrast to her strong presence during the rest of her presidency. Until recently, Argentines have grown accustomed to her appearing extensively around the country, speaking regularly on television and expressing herself prolifically on Twitter about everything from the quality of Argentine beef to the importance of asserting influence in Antarctica.
“It’s at this time when a strong presence is needed, but presidential communication is in a stage of strategic retreat,” said Marcelo J. García, a political communications researcher at the Society for International Development here, which studies global development.
In a barrage of more than 20 Twitter messages early on Friday morning, Mrs. Kirchner again stayed away from the turmoil in Argentina’s currency markets, striking out instead at influential news organizations that have criticized the infrequency of her public appearances in recent weeks. Then on Friday night, she appeared in televised images greeting Prince Akishino of Japan in the presidential palace here.
Mrs. Kirchner, 60, whose office did not respond to several requests for comment, began to withdraw from the public eye last October when she underwent surgery here to drain a blood clot near her brain, the result of a head injury that was never fully explained by the president, her doctors or her advisers.
Later in October, voters dealt a blow to any ambitions that she might have had of running for a third consecutive term by giving new momentum to her opposition in midterm legislative elections. Her party, the Front for Victory, fell far short of the two-thirds majority it needed in Congress to amend the Constitution to allow her to run again.
Mrs. Kirchner seemed to recover well from her surgery, but Argentina’s economy came under greater stress. With inflation soaring, she overhauled her economic team in November, thrusting two young officials into prominent roles.
With Mrs. Kirchner largely avoiding the public eye and leaving explanations of the abrupt economic policy shifts to her aides, many Argentines are fuming.
“She puts the blame on everybody else, but she’s the one running the country,” said Iván Orozco, 53, a travel agent. “She sees a reality that doesn’t exist.”
Even before the currency tumult, polls showed support for Mrs. Kirchner falling sharply. Her approval rating plunged to 27 percent in January, from 42 percent in November, according to a nationwide survey by Management and Fit, a polling company that interviewed 1,600 people across Argentina shortly before the peso tumbled against the dollar.
“This is this government’s most important crisis,” said María Casullo, an expert on populist politics at the University of Buenos Aires.
Mrs. Kirchner took office in 2007 and still draws support from her base, including many poor voters who have benefited from social welfare programs that she and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who preceded her in the presidency and died in 2010, put into effect after the financial collapse of 2001 and 2002. Her supporters, who point out that Argentina’s economy is still expected to grow modestly this year, have also assembled an array of pro-government news organizations in an attempt improve perceptions of her in a highly critical media landscape.
Cynthia García, a panelist on 678, a pro-government news debate program, rejected the notion that Mrs. Kirchner was avoiding discussing the currency crisis.
“If she doesn’t use the words that represent neoliberal interests, they say she’s silent,” Ms. García said, referring to the market-oriented economic policies that prevailed here in the 1990s. “But she is by no means a coward.”
The decline in economic growth from the boom years until 2011 is also exposing Mrs. Kirchner to greater criticism about her own wealth, which has skyrocketed since 2003, the year her husband came to power, according to sworn declarations presented to the federal anticorruption office.
The Kirchners were worth about $2.3 million a decade ago, largely the result of property dealings in Patagonia, their political bastion. In 2010, their fortune had grown to approximately $18 million, including debt, according to Mrs. Kirchner’s sworn declaration, during a period in which she was a senator before her election as president.
It is thought that Mrs. Kirchner inherited half of Mr. Kirchner’s estate, with the other half going to their two children. Subsequently, in 2011, her declared wealth dropped to about $9.4 million before growing again to about $10.5 million in 2012, according to her most recent submission of documents to the anti-corruption office.
She declared 25 percent and 50 percent ownership stakes in 26 properties in Buenos Aires and the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, where Mr. Kirchner was governor for over a decade.
When a student asked her about the rise in her wealth after a televised speech at Harvard University in 2012, Mrs. Kirchner said that judicial investigations had not revealed any irregularities. “We had, and I have, a certain economic position, which is the product of the fact I have worked my whole life and I have been a very successful lawyer,” she said. “Now, I’m also a successful president.”
As many Argentines resort to buying dollars in the black market here, her expanding wealth and near silence as the currency tumult unfolds are opening Mrs. Kirchner to greater criticism.
“She used to speak every day and now it’s once every 45 days,” said José Fernández Montero, 65, a baker. “She’s looking out for her own interests, her own money. The country is going backward.”
Still, the crisis has not fazed her staunchest supporters. “She’s a capable lady, an honest lady,” said Jacinta Giménez, 68, a retired saleswoman. “I’d vote for her until the very end.”