WASHINGTON — The question over ownership of the Falklands Islands has remained a nagging, largely plodding issue for the international community. It was not until recently that Argentina’s unflinching claim to the islands again became a nationalist rallying call, making England’s stonewalled response toward negotiations seem no longer sufficient.
Today, a vast majority of the Argentine public supports moves to press for “dialogue” over its territorial claim, and by extension a majority (though quite likely a lesser one) seems to back President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s resurgent antagonism toward the British government.
In spite of the renewed fervor within “Kirchnerista” political circles, the president has experienced mixed success in building consensus over the issue. Neutrality within South America influenced an acrimonious public exit by the Argentine leader before the end of the 6th Summit of the Americas held last month in Cartagena, Colombia. Kirchner has at times managed to attain lesser victories, such as an agreement by members of South America’s trading bloc, Mercosur, to refuse port to Falklands-flagged vessels. Still, continued neutrality by the US and other major parties creates an impression that there seems to be no tangible results.
Unlike the Falklands dispute, however, Kirchner’s government is currently celebrating success in claiming from Spain’s Repsol a majority stake in Argentina’s oil and gas company YPF SA. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either nationalization or repatriation.
Like the Falklands, the hostile takeover of YPF by Spain in 1999 has been framed by Kirchner’s government as an issue of sovereignty. The move seems to be as popular within the country’s senate as it is with the general public. And, unlike Kirchner’s patriotic crusade for the Falklands, the reaction among some Latin American countries has been one of indignation and ridicule.
In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff immediately distanced her country from the YPF affair, and the president of Petrobras, Brazil’s giant national oil and gas company, remarked that she would “not break contracts, as has occurred in other countries.”
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Recently, The Economist went as far as labeling Kirchner a “Chavista-Lite,” in reference to Venezuela’s populist leader. While the label might have been a stretch in the past, Venezuela’s experience with widespread nationalization of its hydrocarbons sector does bear a passing resemblance to the case of YPF/Repsol.
More alarming is the Kirchner government’s continued battle against Argentina’s largest newspaper and media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín. The administration is strongly suspected of being behind rubber-stamped legislation that declared Papel Prensa — Argentina's only newsprint manufacturer controlled by Clarín and La Nacion — a “commodity of national interest,” opening the door for a potential government takeover.
To be fair, Kirchner’s stated reasoning was based on a desire to prevent media monopolies from dictating national discourse and to control, in a literal sense, the resources necessary to publish newspapers. In the case of Grupo Clarín, the media conglomerate is thought to have the potential to exert substantial weight on the political fortunes of the president.
The perceived campaign of harassment the government has carried out against the newspaper publisher includes raids by tax agents and other aggressive methods. These activities have raised red flags with international monitors of press freedom like the Committee to Protect Journalists. In this sense, the aggregate actions of the Kirchner government make it easy to draw parallels with countries like Venezuela, where Chavez’s populist revolution included a systematic campaign against its domestic press.
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After a decade’s worth of Kirchnerism, the fractured remnants of Argentina’s post-junta political parties have failed to produce a viable alternative candidate. In this environment, it is not difficult to see a growing sense of entitlement by the president, which has culminated in the recurring suggestion by her supporters that Cristina Fernandez should seek a third consecutive term in office. This is currently prohibited by Argentina’s constitution, though discussion of amending the constitution is already being floated by party members and political theorists.
Could Argentina’s future hold a “Cristina Eterna,” or “Cristina Forever,” as the possibility has been dubbed? Some observers, notably publishing on the pages of Clarin and La Nacion, suspect that the recent move to repatriate YPF from Repsol could be the fuel the government seeks to finance another term. It would use revenue from YPF to sustain subsidies, social programs, and cement support throughout Argentina’s provinces. However, in order to reap the benefits of
controlling the country’s oil and gas, heavy investment would be necessary and through it, a brusque recovery of YPF. Given the government’s seeming inattention to lingering debts with the Paris Club, an informal group of financial officials from 19 of some of the world's biggest economies, this could become a tall order.
For a president who began her first term with an international outlook and a desire to attract investment, the careless manner by which Kirchner’s government has seriously damaged its public image within Spain, one of its major economic partners, causes one to question its motives. Already Spain’s cabinet has moved to cancel its purchase of all Argentine biofuel, along with annulment of all trade tariff benefits throughout the EU. While Argentina’s public may be celebrating the recovery of its national resources, it might be well served to recognize that it will come at a cost.
Leandro Oliva lived in Argentina for more than a decade and, until recently, worked in the communications department for the Brookings Institution in Washington.
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