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Putting Argentina’s Kirchner on Peron pedestal

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BUENOS AIRES — President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has sought tirelessly to secure her late husband's place in Argentina's pantheon alongside popular leader Juan Domingo Peron and his glamorous wife Evita, the country's most influential politicians of the 20th century.

Streets, hospitals, tunnels and even a soccer tournament have been named after Nestor Kirchner in the two years since his death. Statues and school improvement campaigns evoke his legacy. Activists proudly wear T-shirts saying "Nestor Lives."

Now Argentines have yet another tool in their myth-making kit: "Nestor Kirchner, the Movie," a documentary that just opened at 120 theaters around the country, an unusually wide distribution equal to that of movies expected to become box-office hits.

The movie also is being shown at a film festival in the resort city of Mar del Plata, where Ms. Fernandez encouraged the crowd Friday to find strength in her late husband's legacy.

"He came to lift up the Argentines who were humiliated, submerged and forgotten," the president said, her voice breaking, as it often does, when she talks of "him." "So if you won't give up, I won't either."

The movie, like Ms. Fernandez's political discourse, is aimed at more than just rallying supporters for a president whose ratings have slipped.

Analyst Roberto Bacman said Ms. Fernandez is claiming a place for herself and her husband on the same pedestal where the Perons still stand as the transformative figures of modern Argentina.

For most Argentines, "Kirchner is not Peron," said analyst Rosendo Fraga, who directs the Center for the New Majority think tank in Buenos Aires. "Kirchner is being used to undo Peron."

Posthumous popularity

Peron left his mark on every aspect of Argentine politics during three presidential terms. With his charismatic wife, he built a movement that united even extremists on the left and right into a grand project so dysfunctional that even today the various branches of the Peronist party include politicians who wouldn't be caught dead sharing a photo op together.

"Peronism has a tendency to find myths, figures of great force; it is a characteristic of populism. Kirchner also made a strong mark as president and after his death his figure grew," Mr. Bacman noted.

Kirchner was unquestionably popular during his 2003 to 2007 mandate, presiding over the early years of an extended recovery from Argentina's disastrous 2001 economic crisis and reasserting his nation's place in the world.

But his approval ratings soared after his fatal heart attack in October 2010 at the age of 60.

"In Argentina, death has a greater social significance than in the rest of the world," said Mr. Fraga, recalling how the death of Evita Peron at the age of 33 prompted massive outpourings of grief in 1952.

Ms. Fernandez' standing also shot up in the polls after her husband's death. She has worn only black since she was widowed, and was re-elected with 54 percent of the votes a year later.

But her support has dropped steadily since. About 61 percent of Argentines now disapprove of her performance, according to a September poll of 2,269 adults by Management & Fit polling firm that had an error margin of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

An uncritical documentary

Ms. Fernandez still seeks strength in her late husband's reflected glory, promoting his legacy in speech after pointed speech.

"He might have been cross-eyed, but he could see much better than people who had contact lenses and many other things, and what he didn't see he could intuit, with this emotional intelligence that God gave him," Ms. Fernandez said Friday.

The documentary's director, Paula de Luque, is an unapologetic Kirchner fan who also recently directed a drama based on the Perons' relationship called "Juan y Eva," which won best film and best director awards at last month's Bogota Film Festival.

Ms. de Luque was recruited by producers Fernando Navarro, a ruling party lawmaker in Buenos Aires province, and Jorge Devoto, who said they were inspired by the massive outpouring of sympathy unleashed by Kirchner's death.

The two men launched an Internet site asking people to contribute any images of Kirchner for the film, and received thousands. The documentary combines these with video fragments and personal testimonies, and music by Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

The result includes some of Kirchner's most symbolic acts as president, such as when he paid off Argentina's International Monetary Fund debt in an effort to operate without IMF scrutiny, and when he stared down President George W. Bush at the 2005 Summit of the Americas and helped kill Mr. Bush's free-trade proposals.

It also shows when Kirchner had the military take dictator Jorge Rafael Videla's picture down from a place of honor in his campaign to revive human rights trials.

The film doesn't criticize Kirchner in any way.

It doesn't include, for example, accusations by his former political allies that he enriched himself with $535 million in oil royalties while he was governor of the southern Santa Cruz province. Kirchner moved it into overseas accounts in the 1990s, keeping it safe there from Argentina's roller-coaster economy.

Critics said he never fully accounted for the cash, but supporters praised this ability to outmaneuver enemies as an important aspect of the his rule.

Unsettled legacy

Ms. de Luque acknowledges that she had no intention of making an objective documentary.

"I'm not neutral," Ms. de Luque said. "I'm not a journalist or neutral historian. It is a controversial movie, but that's OK This is how democracy works."

But she said she didn't want to make a puff piece, either.

"I didn't want a movie that promotes only one view. I've got enough cinematic ethics to know that my job was not to make a film just for my people, but to make it universal enough to be seen by people with other views," Ms. de Luque added.

Ms. Fernandez credits her late husband with fostering a model of social inclusion that has reduced extreme poverty, but critics see the couple as serial abusers of power, autocrats whose demagogic populism has enfeebled the country's institutions.

Many right-wing Peronists have slammed the Kirchners' center-left model, but Ms. Fernandez now is also getting heat from the left, led by trade unionists who say she is not sharing enough of Argentina's remaining wealth with them.

And by using central bank reserves to fund social programs rather than make debt payments, Argentina has found itself increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, Mr. Fraga said.

Mr. Bacman, who directs the Center for Public Opinion in Buenos Aires, said it's still too early to put Nestor Kirchner alongside Juan Peron, who died in 1974.

Peron formed a movement that made working-class people feel represented as he modernized Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s, pushing through worker-friendly laws, giving women the right to vote and fostering a post-war economic boom, Mr. Bacman said.

Kirchner's defining success was to re-establish presidential power after a profound economic and political crisis, when 50 percent of the people were impoverished and "throw them all out" was the theme of raucous pot-banging protests.

"Kirchner's historical legacy isn't settled yet; I think in some ways it depends on what happens with Cristina Fernandez," Mr. Bacman said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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