Life hasn’t been easy lately for Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. After winning the election with more than half the vote last year, the mercurial leader has hit a wall: her approval ratings have sagged to 39 percent, down from 69 percent a year ago. Last month a million people hit the streets in Buenos Aires, banging pots and pans in the classic Argentine rebuke to leaders who have fallen from favor. Her government narrowly missed earning a “red card”—a soccer term for a penalty for foul play—from the International Monetary Fund, essentially for cooking the books on inflation. She is at dagger point with the nation’s most powerful media empire, Clarín, her fiercest critic. And on a recent trip to Europe, the 59-year-old populist leader leased a private jet to preempt foreign creditors from suing to impound her official presidential plane over unsettled debts. Then, just when the mood could seem to get no sourer, she fell out with actor Ricardo Darín, the nation’s biggest screen idol.
A war of words is nothing unusual for a politician—in fact, diatribes and heated discussion are part of the job description for any elected official. But Kirchner’s clash with Darín is an unfathomable public-relations disaster. Why would the ultra-image-conscious national leader (she is mockingly known as Botox Evita, with a reference to the beloved and iconic former first lady Evita Perón) go stiletto-to-toe with a tousled-haired cultural hero who a few years ago brought home an Academy Award for The Secret in Their Eyes as Best Foreign-Language Film?
It all started with a passing—if provocative—snipe by Darín published in the Buenos Aires glossy Brando. “I would like someone to explain to me the story of the growth of the Kirchners’ wealth,” he told the magazine. “I don’t know how anyone could be so shameless. How can this be?” For months, the national media had fed on tales of the Kirchner clan’s mounting fortune, which allegedly swelled fivefold to $18 million between 2003 and 2010, the last year for which records on assets are available. And weighing in with his bedroom baritone, the screen idol fueled the outrage.
Kirchner would have been wise to avoid a contretemps with the popular actor. Instead she posted a long letter on Facebook fiercely defending her administration and that of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, as models of public probity. “Never in the political history of Argentina,” she wrote, have public officials been so accused or so forthcoming over the origins of their personal wealth “as have Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.”
Kirchner’s outburst drew immediate ridicule and retweets from the country’s Twittering classes. Darín’s colleague in the movie business Juan José Campanella, who directed the Oscar-winning Secret, likened the presidential PR department to the Incredible Hulk—but with worse manners. Perhaps taken aback by the media storm he had helped whip up, Darín later stood down, dismissing the incident as a kerfuffle between good friends. “It’s best to sort this out privately,” he told the daily newspaper La Nacion. The Argentines, for their part, are eagerly awaiting the sequel.