- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

BUENOS AIRES Eyebrows were raised when Hilda Duhalde stepped forward and signed her name next to her husband Eduardo's on the official act making him Argentina's fifth president in two weeks. No first lady had been so forward since Eva Peron, Argentines muttered.
That was last Wednesday. By Monday, "Chiche," as Argentina's new first lady is popularly known, was sitting in on Cabinet meetings.
She is widely expected to steer the social policies that could make or break a government that has come to power on the coattails of Argentina's worst economic slump and social unrest in decades.
Mindful of the popular rage that ousted Fernando de la Rua, who beat Mr. Duhalde in 1999 elections, the new president must succor tens of thousands of Argentines who in recent months have slipped below the poverty line to join the ranks of families earning less than 500 pesos ($360) a month.
Following the populist traditions of his Peronist Party, Mr. Duhalde has already promised a 200 peso-a-month payment for jobless heads of families and training programs for a million of the neediest Argentines.
He believes he has the right person to deliver what's needed "Chiche."
At 54, the petite mother of five has plenty of experience in working with the poor.
For years in Buenos Aires Province, while Mr. Duhalde was governor, she was their queen like Evita, when her husband, Juan, became Argentina's president in 1945.
Mr. Duhalde earmarked more than $80 million annually for his wife's community projects run by "manzaneras," shantytown moms who supplied needy families on their blocks, or "manzanas," with basics such as bread, milk, eggs and medicines.
By the time Mr. Duhalde left office for his failed 1999 presidential bid, his wife had gathered an army of 20,000 "manzaneras."
Although her opponents accused her of "Evitismo" wooing poor voters with populist social programs similar to those Evita used to win her popular sainthood among her "descamisados," or shirtless poor "Chiche" failed to win a seat as a parliamentary deputy in the 1997 elections.
Nevertheless, she is now first lady and, by the looks of things, intends to make her mark.
"Chiche," a fervent Roman Catholic, claims Evita and Mother Teresa as role models. Although she denies imitating Evita, observers say she has built her image around Argentina's most enduring icon, who died in 1953.
Her old provincial government office was decorated with pictures of her idol and she once recalled that on the night of Evita's death in 1953, she and her mother "hugged each other and cried."
"She is very discreet, but she loves it when people compare her with Evita," said Silvia Naishtat, an editor at leading Buenos Aires daily Clarin. "She and Duhalde represent old-style Peronism, from the poor part of Buenos Aires, where Peronism was founded by Juan and Eva."
According to Naishtat, "Chiche" is Mr. Duhalde's "first and foremost adviser" and is proud of her family that is "solid and free of any taint of scandal." The couple met 30 years ago at a Buenos Aires swimming pool, where Mr. Duhalde was working as a lifeguard to pay for his law studies. "Chiche" became a schoolteacher.
Her no-nonsense style is reflected in her conservative dress and her decision hers not Mr. Duhalde's, media reports say not to move the family into Olivos, the elegant presidential residence.
Between a whirlwind of meetings this week, "Chiche" found time to answer one of her children's questions about whether they would be moving.
"No, don't worry, we're going to stay on here living at home," Clarin quoted her as telling her son.

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