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Argentina's First Lady Now President-Elect

By Michael Bowman
Buenos Aires
29 October 2007

Argentina has, for the first time, elected a woman president. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the current first lady and a senator, will take the reins of power from her husband, outgoing President Nestor Kirchner, in December. VOA's Michael Bowman takes a closer look at a woman some compare to former U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton.

More than 50 years ago, Argentina produced perhaps Latin America's most famous - or infamous - female political figure: Eva Peron, wife of two-time President Juan Peron. Today, 54-year-old Cristina Fernandez has achieved something that Eva Peron, or Evita as she was known, could hardly have imagined.

"A female president! Get used to it all of you! A female. I know that you are used to men [as leaders], but now you will have to get used to women, too," she said.

Many Argentines, particularly women, are clearly pleased with the election outcome.

"This is a great opportunity for Argentina, since the men who have governed us so far have not done a good job," said Buenos Aires waitress Gabriela Villa.

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Many note that, during the campaign, Fernandez never spelled out what she intends to do as president, speaking only in general terms of boosting prosperity and working for social justice.

School teacher Karina Pugliese shrugs when asked about the president-elect.

"It all depends on what she does when she assumes power," she said.

Accountant Marcelo Mora says he has no problem with a woman president as long as she does a good job in office.

He says, "If she is capable, it is not a question of sex [gender]. If she is capable, then she is welcome to lead."

In a country where men have traditionally dominated every facet of politics and commerce, Fernandez's election is, for better or worse, historic. Some say her ascension to power was aided by Argentina's financial crisis of 2001. Buenos Aires tour guide Claudia Solana notes the crisis set the stage for Nestor Kirchner's rise to power and sparked social changes as Argentine families struggled to survive the economic meltdown.

Solana says, "And so men had to accept that their wives left the house to go to work, and women began to occupy positions in companies and now in the government, in politics. As a result, women are now more accepted by men [in positions of power]."

Cristina Fernandez hails from Argentina's Peronist Party. Like Eva Peron, she has a taste for designer clothes and maintains a carefully polished public image. Unlike Peron, she comes from a middle-class family, seems to prefer pragmatic discourse over charismatic hyperbole, and is not seen as a radical champion of the poor.

Some say Fernandez's greatest political asset - President Kirchner - is also her biggest liability.

"She comes to power thanks to her husband's time in office, which saw a return to economic growth, higher employment, and a recovery of presidential authority," said Argentine political consultant Sergio Berensztein. "At the same time, her main problems are the things her husband did - or rather failed to do, such as controlling inflation, combating corruption, expanding energy sources, and fighting crime."

Fernandez joins Chile's Michelle Bachelet as Latin America's sole female leaders. But yet another woman could conceivably come to power next year in the Americas: Hillary Clinton. Like Argentina's president-elect, Clinton has been first lady and is currently a senator, representing the U.S. state of New York. But while Cristina Fernandez was tapped to run by her husband, Hillary Clinton is currently competing for the presidential nomination of the opposition Democratic Party.

Some observers speak of a possible grand alliance between the two women, should Hillary Clinton be elected. But Argentine political analyst Rosendo Fraga is not sure.

He says, "I do not know if there will be a great friendship [between them]. But I do think Cristina believes that a [U.S.] government led by Hillary would present an opportunity to establish a more friendly bilateral relationship with the United States."

Whereas President Kirchner kept a relatively low-profile on the world stage, Fernandez has already shown a desire to travel and engage with foreign leaders. She says one of the main goals of her foreign policy will be to attract greater international investment in Argentina.

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