Who is Alberto Fernández?

23rd May 2019

By Ignacio Portes

Who is Alberto Fernández?

The emergence of Alberto Fernández from little-known political fixer to Cristina Kirchner’s favorite in the presidential race can’t be understood without looking at the downfall of the Kirchners in the latter part of their twelve years in power.

Most analysts would agree that early and late Kirchnerism were not exactly the same animal. Some mark the conflict with farmers in 2008 as a breaking point, beginning a period of open confrontation between the ruling family and other powerful actors. Others say it was the death of Néstor Kirchner in 2010 that changed the course of the coalition.

Wherever you draw the line, Fernández was only a key part of the government in the first half, when negotiation and consensus-building with Argentine businessmen, union leaders, and broader political sectors were the order of the day.

Who is Alberto Fernández?

Fernández, a criminal lawyer and professor, was the Kirchners’ cabinet chief between 2003 and 2008. As well as being involved with day-to-day operations of the administration, he was a key middleman with the press and the courts. But as conflicts between the Kirchners and key interest groups escalated and bridges were burned, he became redundant.

His return to the front lines can be seen as an attempt to bring back those early days, which disenchanted former Kirchnerites nostalgically refer to as “Néstorism.” In the view of the Nestoristas, Néstor’s widow Cristina grew increasingly stubborn and isolated with the passing of time, surrounded by yes men and an enthusiastic youth who could not make up for the loss in experience and political know-how. This, they believe, eventually led to three consecutive electoral defeats: 2013, 2015 and 2017.

The brand new presidential candidate could not agree more.

The Calafate Group

Fernández began his political association with the Kirchners in the 1990s, most notably through the creation of the Calafate Group in 1998. The city of Calafate, in Néstor Kirchner’s Santa Cruz province, hosted a group of left- and liberal-progressive-Peronists opposed to the ruling pro-market Peronism of President Carlos Menem (1989-1999), after working with him during his first years in office.

By the end of Menem’s second term, Buenos Aires province governor Eduardo Duhalde was mounting a very public and noisy charge to regain control of Peronism. The Calafate Group sided with Duhalde to an extent, but eventually gained a life of its own. After the 2001 financial crash, Fernández acted as a link to ensure that Néstor Kirchner obtained the blessing of the now interim president Duhalde for his successful 2003 presidential bid.

But as his political CV illustrates, Fernández was more a pragmatist than an ideologue. His beginnings in the 1980s reportedly included a brief stint in right-wing nationalism, followed by positions in the National Superintendence of Insurance and the state-owned Provincia Bank, which broadened his contacts with Argentine business circles. He was only elected for office once as a Buenos Aires city councilman in 2000, part of a strange-bedfellows alliance led by Menem’s former pro-market Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo.

Fernández was among the earliest believers in Kirchner’s chances to win the presidential race, working for his candidacy in Buenos Aires as Kirchner continued to rule the distant Santa Cruz province in the South. His prize was landing the cabinet chief position when Kirchner took office.

‘Us against them’

Fernández was the government’s representative before the four main landowner associations in the 2008 conflict over export duties, which brought the country’s political landscape to a standstill.

According to his counterparts, the now presidential candidate was eager to find common ground. But ascending economic advisers to the Kirchners such as the hardliner Guillermo Moreno remained unmoved. Eventually, all deals broke down, and Fernández resigned. “From that point onward, Cristina divided the world into two halves and bought into an ‘us against them’ mindset,” Fernández said in an interview over the 10th anniversary of the conflict.

That mindset spread to other areas of the government. A year after stepping down from the cabinet, Fernández was also fired from a position he held in a private-public partnership firm known as Papel Prensa, which monopolized the production and distribution of newsprint in the country. Fernández was seen as too cozy with Papel Prensa’s co-owners, the Clarín media group, now at war with the Kirchners.

His replacement at Papel Prensa’s board was a sign of the new times: Beatriz Paglieri, the wife of the aforementioned Moreno. Paglieri and Moreno were already in the eye of the storm as they led the violent takeover of the INDEC statistics bureau. Intimidation of statisticians, hiring of football hooligans and widespread forgery of figures at the bureau marked one of the most indefensible points of the Kirchnerite decade.

A bone for critics

Fernández’s pick could be seen as a tacit acceptance of the demands for self-criticism frequently thrown at Cristina Kirchner.

Not all of those demands, of course: Fernández still speaks highly of her and is unlikely to get support from Macri’s voters. The presidential nominee believes the D’alessio spy scandal, among other irregularities, proves Cristina is the victim of judicial persecution.

And he is unambiguous in stating that Macri’s economy is incomparably worse than that of the Kirchners. Higher inflation, skyrocketing debt, declining salaries, and currency instability are proof enough to him, even though he admits to a high fiscal deficit and an over-regulated foreign sector by the time Cristina Kircher had left.

When faced with his own past statements against Cristina, Fernández argues there’s no need to take them back and suggests they prove the former president is more open than she gets credit for, even if some of their differences remain.

Initially, Fernández’s criticism was cautious, saying in 2009 that the government “stopped listening to what people had to say.” But with time, they got harsher. “Why was Menem’s corruption perverse but this corruption is revolutionary?” he asked in 2012. “Why was Menem’s re-election bad but Cristina’s is acceptable?”

“I find it extremely hard to see a single positive in Cristina’s second term,” he added in 2015. “Her so-called ‘democratization of justice’ was deplorable; the treaty with Iran was deplorable; the non-resolution of (late Prosecutor Alberto) Nisman’s death was deplorable.” In another interview that same year, he said he believed Cristina was suffering from an “enormously distorted view of reality” due to her denial of the economic situation.

Contact with Massa

With those harsh words came his role as campaign chief for two other former Kirchnerites, now turned rivals. Fernández led Sergio Massa’s presidential campaign in 2015 and Florencio Randazzo’s bid for the Senate in 2017.

Both Randazzo and Massa lost, but so did the Kirchnerite candidates.

Talks with Cristina re-started after their painful 2017 defeats to a little-known minister of Macri’s government, Esteban Bullrich. They went unnoticed at first, but a year later Fernández was already her campaign chief, and he has now turned into the main figurehead.

Their next step, some believe, could be a last-minute attempt to also bring Massa back on board. Fernández surely hasn’t lost his phone number.

Reasons to remain skeptical about the new coalition remain. Will it hold when the bad times eventually return? Will the economic advisers from Cristina’s late years in office, most of whom remain in her team, see eye to eye with Fernández over policy? Or will Cristina’s loyalists accuse Fernández of being a private sector lobbyist, as they did in 2012? The key chapters of Fernández’s bio are yet to be written.

Ignacio Portes

Ignacio Portes is The Essential's General Editor. Former Economy editor at the Buenos Aires Herald, he has also written for publications such as Naked Capitalism, NSFWCorp and Revista Debate.