Senator and First Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, 54, wife of President Nestor Kirchner, is all but certain to win Argentina's October 28 presidential election. If so, she will be the first woman ever elected to the Casa Rosada, the Pink House, the Buenos Aires presidential palace. (Isabel Peron, president from 1974 to 1976, succeeded to the office after her husband Juan died.) A veteran lawyer, legislator and stateswoman, as well as political fashion plate, Fernandez is often called The New Evita, after Argentina's most famous First Lady, Eva Peron. In a rare interview, she talked with TIME's Tim Padgett about her role in Argentina's return to the world stage after its disastrous financial crisis of 2001-02. Excerpts:
TIME: How are you like Eva Peron and how do you think you represent Argentina's national character?
FERNANDEZ: I bring a lot of passion to my life and my politics I don't mind saying there is a very strong Latin component to it. I'm a daughter of the middle class with a strong sense of social mobility and individualism, like the waves of immigrants, like my Spanish grandparents, who made Argentina. But Eva was a unique phenomenon in Argentine history, so I'm not foolish enough to compare myself with her. Women of my generation owe her a debt: When we came of age during the dark [military] dictatorship of the 1970s, we had her example of passion and combativeness to get us through.
What's the reason for your more than 20-point lead in voters polls?
My advantage is largely a product of President Kirchner's political project, which has produced strong economic growth without the unemployment and institutional ruptures we saw as a result of the neoliberal capitalist reforms of the 1990s, which brought on the crisis. For most of the 20th century, such ruptures in Argentina and Latin America were usually a result of military coups; but after the fall of the Berlin Wall they've often resulted from following the Washington Consensus [U.S.-backed capitalist reform policies].
So why are you running rather than your husband seeking reelection?
He has always said that he wasn't pursuing reelection but no one believed him, perhaps because no one believed someone in his place would ever really means it. I think my husband wants to be an example in that sense. We'd also like to stop the cycle of traumatic government change in Argentina, where every election is a game of Russian roulette.
Some suggest you and your husband intend to create a dynasty in which you simply alternate in power for the next two or three presidential terms.
I suggest you look at the U.S. Without getting involved in internal U.S. politics, I believe Hillary Clinton will be the next U.S. President, and I think it will be a good thing for the U.S. to have a woman in the White House. But if she does, the country will have been ruled by two families, the Bushes and Clintons, for a quarter century.
Is it appropriate to compare you with Hillary?
We're both lawyers, and it's considered rare that professional women like us are also wives of Presidents. And don't forget, one difference is that I was a Senator before my husband became President. But I think our style of argumentation is similar in the sense that women today bring a different face to politics. We're culturally formed to be citizens of two worlds, public and private. We're wrapped up as much in what our daughters' school principal says as we are in what the newspapers are saying we see the big geopolitical picture but also the smaller daily details of our citizens' lives.
Your marriage is also compared to the political partnership of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
I don't call it a partnership; it's still a marriage, and no two marriages are alike. But when my husband and I used to have offices next to each other in the Santa Cruz state legislature, we would consult each other not as spouses but as people we considered to have the clearest opinions on politics. We have the utmost respect for each other in that sense. And we have our differences I think he spoils our 17-year-old daughter Florencia far too much.
Should we expect any change from your husband's administration, or do you plan to continue his course?
Under him Argentina has had unheard-of macroeconomic achievements not only growth but a historic restructuring of Argentina's foreign debt, especially with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in order to sustain that growth. So I'd say we've already experienced a huge change under President Kirchner. Now we can build on it with things like improved education and a system of national public health.
Many American and European holders of tens of billions of dollars in Argentine debt are still insisting on restructuring terms that leave them with less heavy losses.
Our restructuring plan isn't something capricious. In fact, it's based on economic and, more important, capitalist rationality, because we've determined it's the only way we can sustain the economic growth that the IMF, which was the original devil in this whole situation, had always insisted on from the beginning. There is always risk involved. You can't be a capitalist only when there are investment profits but then a socialist when you experience losses.
You often speak of "social and inclusive capitalism." Is your brand of leftist Peronism [the powerful populist party founded in the 1940s by Eva Peron's President husband, Juan Peron] more economically pragmatic?
We're not averse to capitalism. But if they used to say, "Workers of the world unite!" then we also say today, "Capitalists of the world, assume your social responsibility!"
A big question regarding foreign relations is whether you plan to draw leftist Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, whose oil wealth helped ease Argentina out of its financial crisis, into a closer alliance or create some distance?
We have good relations with Venezuela and President Chavez not only because he's helped us with the question of our debt and our energy crisis, but also because of our understanding that he's won his presidential elections with the approval of international observers. Let me reiterate that no one selects Argentina's friends but Argentina. President Kirchner, [Brazilian President] Lula, Chavez, are all in sync with regard to the need to integrate into our own regional bloc, and Venezuela meets our criteria with regard to democracy and human rights.
Argentina has accused Iran of complicity in the deadly 1990s bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Do Chavez's close ties to Iran affect Argentine relations with Venezuela in that regard?
I can't select another head of state's friends any more than I can select another head of state. We have good relations with Israel, which has close ties to England; but should I let Argentina's differences with England over the Malvinas [The Falkland Islands] affect our relations with Israel? You have to respect certain aspects of another nation's sovereignty.
You've been critical of the U.S. in that regard. How do you see Argentine-U.S. relations, as well as Latin-U.S. relations, under your presidency?
Chavez's threat to the U.S. is more verbal than actual. But more urgent here is the question of multilateralism. The fall of the Berlin Wall made the U.S. a superpower with a unilateral character; and the unilateral decisions it has made in recent years, like the invasion of Iraq, outside the United Nations and international law, have caused the world a lot of problems.
Is there a chance, then, that you could serve as an interlocutor between the U.S. and the so-called Chavez bloc?
I think America has more than enough maturity and intelligence to start exercising its world leadership responsibly. And we need that from the U.S. But there also needs to be a spirit of multilateralism in the hemisphere for once. I don't know if the U.S. and Chavez require an interlocutor; but the only advice I can give is to engage countries with regard for their popular sovereignty. When you look at Chavez and Lula and Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, you realize that perhaps for the first time in [Latin America's] history, those who govern actually look like those being governed.
You made your political reputation as an anti-corruption crusader. The last year of your husband's administration has included some high-profile financial scandals. Given that corruption is still Latin America's No. 1 plague, will you make it a priority in your own government?
Yes, and the key is building an absolutely independent and professional judiciary. No government can guarantee the absence of corruption any more than you can guarantee that a shirt will never need washing. But you do need to assert an attitude that includes either removing these people or putting them in front of the judiciary, which President Kirchner has been clear about doing. This is also about the corruptors as well as the corrupt: Along with the photos of corrupt Latin officials we also need to publish those of the businessmen who pay them off, including Americans. We're still waiting for the U.S. to extradite the IBM executives who we feel were responsible for one of our country's worst financial scandals.
You and your husband have also been aggressive about prosecuting human rights cases from Argentina's "dirty war" and the bloody 1976-83 military dictatorship that killed or "disappeared" up to 30,000 people including friends from your own Peronist party. And in fact, one of those who recently testified, Jorge Julio Lopez, has gone missing himself. How do you plan to help Argentina battle that legacy?
By focusing on three main values: truth, memory and justice. Some Argentines believe today that combating human rights abuses is a thing of the past or just a thing that only leftists and progressives worry about instead of seeing it as an ongoing process of human beings. My hope is that Argentina becomes a human rights role model in the world as a result of our efforts. And I take a lot of inspiration from knowing that it was women the mothers of the disappeared in their white scarves who stepped forward and helped bring down the dictatorship.
So do you believe Argentina is back as a hemispheric or even world player?
Yes, Argentina is finding again its presence on the international scene; it's finding its identity again. In the '90s we thought having ann exchange rate of one [Argentine] peso to one [U.S.] dollar was an automatic passport to the First World, but that was a mistake. We're finding our way now, and we're reasserting Argentina on the world stage.