This morning, walking past a kiosko (that is, a street kiosk that sells magazines, newspapers, and smokes), I saw my first front-page headline pertaining to the falsification of the Argentine president’s cancer scare. A bit of background: la Presidenta Cristina Kirchner (whose late husband, Nestor, was the president before her) was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year. This very legitimate health scare was played up by the prez’s PR machine and subsequently amplified by national media–as would be the case anywhere with that scenario, I suppose–to elicit sympathy and a sense of national solidarity. “Fuerza Cristina” graffiti multiplied on Argentine walls. When it unfolded last week that the thyroid removed from the president’s body turned out to be devoid of cancerous cells, however, there was very little fanfare. It immediately struck me as odd.
What if, say, Barack Obama had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer? Surely, the media wouldn’t let it go. But then, say, after his nationally-breath-held operation came through and it turned out that, Oops! The cells were healthy after all! wouldn’t there be investigation? Wouldn’t people insist that something smelled fishy? Of course they would; someone would immediately suspect a stunt at play. North American democracy is founded upon a healthy sense of skepticism. Not so in Argentina. The fundamental distrust of democratic governance held by the Argentine people, recently released from the throngs of a dictatorial regime, is apparently immune to bizarre marketing schemes that will play up a head of state’s potentially life-threatening illness only to overlook its subsequently positive prognosis. It’s easier, here, to simply put one’s faith in one’s leader. She’s strong and speaks for the people! is the prevailing rationale. It’s called Peronism, and it’s a curious beast.
The Peronist political machine relies upon a degree of personality cultishness that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. When I visited the Casa Rosada (presidential palace) last week, I was immediately stricken by the dozens of photo installations of the president, her late husband and their children, displayed along the entrance. These mini-billboards showed “day in the life” type scenes: photos of the president blowing kisses from outside a car window, presumably at a crowd of her loyal countrypeople; la presidenta mid-embrace with her children; “candid” shots of Cristina at speaking engagements, eyes welling with emotion before the masses. Why are images politically relevant? Well, they aren’t. Nothing about Cristina’s ability to smile at a camera suggests shrewd policymaking. Rather, the message is, “I am one of you. Love me.” And, it seems to work.
Back to the cancer thing. Why wasn’t this front-page news last week? Why has it been discussed on television broadcasts only as an afterthought? Why haven’t people been celebrating her–apparently, unexpectedly–good health? I can’t help but come to the conclusion that there’s a fear of throwing off a narrative of support and well-wishes coming from high up, trickling down to mainstream media. A populist head of state’s life-threatening illness is quite the unifier, after all. Why break the circle? It’s an idea that especially makes sense in the context of what I’ve been told, that the press isn’t completely, 100% free in Argentina.
Not to say that North American politics are any more civil, but it’s been fascinating to see a totally different kind of machine at play. Techniques of ruling also have their cultural differences.