Illness and Power

Everyone knows the president fell, but nobody knows how, or when, or where. There are several theories in circulation about what happened to the Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: some say she tripped on the stairway of her plane, others say it was a lumpy rug, and still others say she fainted. People are also split on when it happened: either just before or just after the August primary for the midterm elections, when her party saw its lowest support in a decade.

By the time she was released from the hospital early this week, all we could agree on was that she’d had surgery after enduring a blow to the head, a blow that had produced the subdural hematoma that, over the past few days, has kept Argentina hanging in the balance.

This wasn’t the first time our president had been hospitalized. She underwent surgery after a misdiagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2011. That was the year that Hugo Chávez, already ill, said he believed that someone (e.g., United States intelligence) “might have developed the technology to induce cancer” and was using it to murder Latin American leaders.

It’s a tempting theory: the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos had surgery for prostate cancer last year; the president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, as well as Brazil’s two most recent presidents, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, have also battled malignant tumors. Mr. Chávez died after his battle with cancer this year.

The more likely explanation is that there is simply something about the exercise of power that does not seem to agree with those Latin Americans who attempt it.

Sickness, however, has a way of bringing on sympathy and affection from the public. In 2010, when her husband and the former president, Néstor Kirchner, died of a heart attack at 60, Mrs. Kirchner’s support skyrocketed.

In certain countries, voters are inclined to abandon leaders who reveal physical or emotional weakness, but in Argentina it’s the other way around. Just look at her party’s campaign ads featuring shots of the candidate, Martín Insaurralde, with no hair as a result of chemotherapy treatments. In Argentine politics, sickness and death are key players.

Mrs. Kirchner — whom doctors have advised to take a month off from work to recover — needs that sympathy now more than ever. Her administration is suffering a seemingly never-ending string of errors. The worst of these was the transformation of a country that once relied entirely on its own sources for oil and natural gas into one that depends on imports, a draining of resources that has led to what many economists say is an annual inflation rate of 25 percent.

But her administration is also capable of infinite smaller errors that make everyday work that much more complicated. For example: the choice of Amado Boudou as her vice president. Mr. Boudou, the former finance minister, was never popular. But Mrs. Kirchner insisted that he be her running mate in 2011. “I need a man at my side who isn’t afraid,” she said at the time.

Mr. Boudou was certainly not afraid — to sing rock ’n’ roll, to cruise around on his motorcycle, to smile ceaselessly and to rack up allegations: he is being investigated for corruption and illicit enrichment. Mrs. Kirchner has been dogged by accusations of corruption of her own. But Mr. Boudou has succeeded in becoming the politician with the worst public image in Argentina, a country that, in general, does not look kindly upon its elected officials.

For this reason, Mrs. Kirchner has kept him out of the public eye and, when she fell ill, tried to put off or hide his temporary ascent to the presidency. For a couple of days, uncertainty reigned: nobody knew if Mr. Boudou was the interim president or not. Now we all know that he is, but apparently the power remains in Mrs. Kirchner’s hands.

Some have joked that the only reason Mrs. Kirchner chose him was so that voters would dislike him so much, they would want her to stay in her presidential seat as long as possible. But it’s not working.

This time around, it’s becoming increasingly clear that not even the president’s illness can attract enough support to help her reverse the electoral defeat that all the polls are predicting. For once, personal matters might be less important to voters than inflation, insecurity, inefficiency and all the accusations of corruption. Mrs. Kirchner’s hopes of running again in 2015 seem to have been buried.

So after all, perhaps she will find herself cured of the ailment that, of all those suffered by Latin American politicians, is the most endemic: the re-election virus. In our part of the world, where leaders have been known to manipulate national institutions in order to retain their command, this is a rare event. For too many of them, executive power is the last shield against judicial power: between the two, they know for sure which one they prefer.

Martín Caparrós is the author of the novel The Vanishing of the Mona Lisa. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.

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