For millions of Argentinians, the late Nestor Kirchner, the political strongman who ruled Argentina between 2003 and 2007, was a colossus. He took on the banks, the International Monetary Fund, and George W. Bush. He was an iconoclast, so the myth goes, who dragged Argentina from the flames of its biggest economic meltdown and restored pride to a nation on its knees.
The Palacio de Correos in downtown Buenos Aires is unmistakably a colossus. Built over four separate decades, between 1888 and 1928, the city’s old central post office is the biggest, most beautiful example of Beaux-Arts architecture in Argentina’s capital. It occupies an entire city block; a robust palace of muscular columns and marbled walls, a once gilded sorting post for correspondence arriving from the old world to the new.
The Kirchners—Nestor and Cristina, who succeeded her husband as president in 2007—handpicked the old postal palace as the site for their legacy project, the biggest cultural center in Latin America, no less. The Kirchners promised to convert the old post office into an arts space that would be as impressive as the Centro Pompidou, a gift to the nation that would bring art to the masses, free of cost.
It would transform a floor space of 115,000 square meters into a state-of-the-art cultural center with capacity for more than 50 separate concert rooms, a museum of modern art, and, to top it all, a central auditorium with seating space for nearly 2,000 spectators. It would be a fitting monument to a political power couple who, in more than a decade of leftist rule, brought deep social and economic change to Argentina.
In May 2015 this grand vision became reality. Cristina Kirchner, now a widow following her husband’s sudden death, opened the brand new Centro Cultural Kirchner (Kirchner Cultural Center) to great fanfare and greater controversy. Close to tears, she dedicated it to her late husband’s memory.
The lavish budget for the conversion had spiraled so much it rivalled the cost of major contemporaneous work on Rome’s Coliseum. But Cristina’s supporters didn’t mind; they believed the project to be a loving homage to her late husband. Critics, however, called it pharaonic folly, a vanity project befitting the couple’s 12 years in power.
The new cultural center polarizes opinion. In fact, it has become a symbol of Kirchner rule itself.
The Central Post Office of Argentina (“Palacio de Correos”) during its construction. It was inaugurated in 1928. Photo: Ministerio de Obras Públicas de la Argentina/Commons
My partner and I crane our necks upwards at the building’s façade, all weighty classicism and as big as a cliff-face. We climb a pile of steps. There are three sets of open double doors. We choose the ones on the left, where two members of La Cámpora, the militant youth wing of Cristina Kirchner’s political party. Remunerated staff at the cultural center are in the pay of the Argentinian state, and according to local media reports a slice of their state-funded wage is funneled back to the political party Cristina heads. (Argentinians commonly refer to Ms. Kirchner by her first name.)
One of the guards, whose crimpled t-shirt is emblazoned with the Kirchner brand, informs us that the entrance is at the next doorway. There, a second foot soldier welcomes us to the Centro Cultural Kirchner and a young man tells us about the center and its exhibitions.
Hero-worship informed the designation of the old postal palace as a legacy site. Nestor Kirchner’s father spent his working life in the employ of Argentina’s postal service. For Cristina, it was her political heroine, Eva Perón. In the 1940s the charismatic former First Lady ran a charitable foundation from an office at the old postal palace.
The cultural center preserves Evita’s office in-situ. Its floors are crafted from French oak, the walls lined with silk cloth. From a singularly luxurious space, Evita sat in the manner of a medieval queen, dispatching gifts and monies to the poor and destitute, while receiving hundreds more in person each day.
José María Areilza, the Spanish Ambassador of the day, wrote in 1946:
It was non-stop clamor. A racket of hundreds of people waiting for hours to be received by Her: workers’ commissions, union representatives, disheveled village women with children… a gaucho family… peasants… secretaries, senators, deputies, governors, the president of the Central Bank. In the midst of this apparent chaos, this noisy, confusing, even insane bazaar, Evita heard the most diverse petitions.
Today, a corner of the office conserves letters piled from floor to ceiling, once posted by Argentinians to Evita in solicitation of her beneficence. Hundreds of packaged gifts—children’s toys, tea sets, bicycles, Christmas cakes—are stacked as if ready to be dispatched in return.
On an oak desk there rests an original letter handwritten by the First Lady to a young schoolgirl. In neat script, Evita congratulates the girl on her exam results and by way of reward encloses holiday vouchers and train tickets to the Córdoba sierras. This was Evita the venerated; protector of the poor.
Néstor and Cristina Kirchner at an election-eve campaign rally, 2007. Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina/Commons
It is almost certain the Kirchners chose the postal palace because of its links to Evita and General Juan Domingo Perón. A vein of populist rule runs through Argentina’s modern history, bookended by the Peróns in the 1940s and the Kirchners in the modern day.
Together, the Kirchners became the most powerful political couple in Argentina since the 1940s. Nestor was a pragmatic like the old General; Cristina often invokes Evita; so much so that her critics call her the Botox Evita, an allusion to a president who is rumored to have undergone cosmetic surgery but also someone who, her critics say, is a fake. They point to Cristina’s tendency to pontificate on poverty standing at the dispatch box, all dazzling jewels and luxurious hair extensions, while at the same time overseeing an 800 percent leap—according to figures released by Kirchner herself—in the value of her family’s wealth during 12 years in power.
But there are key differences. In 1955, a military coup ousted the general. In a democratic era free of the military coup, the Kirchners’ cycle has been permitted to reach an exhausted end. Only not before creating deep divisions.
To understand the violent birth of that cycle, one must go back to the past and to the devastation visited upon Argentina in 2001 and 2002. At that time Argentina suffered the biggest economic meltdown in its history, when the country’s financial system was crushed under a mountain of foreign debt and austerity programs imposed on it by the International Monetary Fund.
I was a reporter in Buenos Aires at the time and witnessed the struggles for the first time. A review of my notes finds the following excerpts:
Live TV footage: On a highway, a truck carrying livestock to market is stopped and overturned by men, wielding machetes. The men unload the cattle, which they proceed to slaughter at the roadside. Wives and children flee with raw cuts of beef.
An immigrant Chinese man and supermarket owner stand in tears outside his business. Looters strip his store and exit carrying everything from tinned food to the man’s tinseled Christmas tree. (A reporter from La Nación newspaper later attempted to track down the weeping Chinese man. It turns out he took his own life shortly after the episode I described in my notebook.)
Police fire live ammunition on protestors in the main plaza in Buenos Aires, killing dozens in a single afternoon.
President Fernando de la Rúa flees the Pink House by rooftop helicopter lest he be lynched at roadside.
Then—so the story goes—came the Kirchners to drag Argentina phoenix-like from the flames of its earlier collapse. “Never again,” Nestor Kirchner said in his inaugural speech. He promised a new model, which would defend Argentina’s economic sovereignty and end wealth iniquity.
At the Kirchner Cultural Centre, the Nestor Kirchner Salon celebrates this narrative. The great myth, critics say. In video clips we see Nestor Kirchner’s inaugural address. “The expression of the popular will,” he says “is a moral obligation.” Here is Kirchner announcing the cancellation of Argentina’s debts before the hated IMF. There is Kirchner standing up to George W. Bush at a regional summit, after rejecting a proposal for a free-trade zone of the Americas.
The Kirchners were never bad at vulgarity
Much of this is true, though the display strays into vulgar vainglory. (The Kirchners were never bad at vulgarity: Cristina once urged Argentinians to forgo the beefsteak for fish, hinting the latter had spiked Nestor’s virility.) Nestor Kirchner was indeed a political titan who restored growth to Argentina. But there were fortuitous factors. Not least of which was China’s entry into the World Trade Organization at the end of 2001, which saw global demand for agricultural commodities explode. The boom funded lavish spending by the Kirchners on welfare and price-subsidy programs.
It is tempting to view the full power of the Kirchner state as on display at the center. It is not just the gargantuan size of this place, itself a reminder of the omnipotence of centralized government. It is in the almost total absence of visitor signs. Where one might expect to read a sign, two T-shirted loyalists are at hand to advise where to go. Where a locked door might suffice, the doorway is left open and two La Cámpora activists are stationed to remind the entrance to this exhibition is a further 10 meters along.
Jobs for the boys and girls, one might say. The chaotic organization of a new cultural center with teething problems, others suggest. Yet that the new cultural center is massively overstaffed is undeniable, and this has sparked fears of there being something much more insidious at play.
Critics call the center a metaphor for a less appealing aspect of Kirchner rule: the disempowerment of the individual before the state; the creation of a sense of dependency, they say; the subtle curbing, even, of one’s free will. Either way, it is maddening to be subject to instructions every three minutes (or so it seems) by well-meaning staff. One emits a silent scream. The instinctive desire to follow one’s own path meets only frustration.