By Chrissie Long
Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s speech at the Kennedy School received a fiery response both among students here and the press in her home country.
After criticizing students for “unjust” sentiments and rehearsed questions, she said Harvard University students should know better: “Chicos, we are at Harvard. Please. These things are for La Matanza [a public university in Argentina], not for Harvard.”
She told a student who had written his question on a note card: “I see that you read the question. Surely, you don’t have a good memory to remember what you want to tell me.”
And when another student asked about the restriction on the purchase of foreign currency, she said, “You have the good luck to be studying at Harvard. Do you think you can talk of the restriction of the purchase of foreign currency? Don’t you think it’s a little unjust for the rest of Argentineans? I think it’s a little unjust for all Argentineans, but very well, that’s my perception.” Gabriel Saez, an MPA student from Argentina, said Kirchner’s behavior was to be expected: “She treated students the same way she treats everybody in Argentina. She lied and tried to intimidate people.”
Yet, Mariana Filgueira Risso, also an MPA student from Argentina, said it was students’ questions, not Kirchner’s responses that merit some reflection.
“Why the sarcasm?” she asked. “She is our president, and our guest… Are we trying to challenge her? What are we trying to show?”
Filgueira said that students should feel free to ask what they want, but that many of the questions lacked respect. She said an important opportunity to ask about social policies and human rights was wasted.
Among the most critical questions were: After seeing little transparency in the inflation, crime and poverty indices, don’t you think it’s time to start a self reflection and begin to accept some different opinions? And, why does an Argentine citizen need to have a little fear of the president?
“What happened in Cristina’s speech is a mirroring of what is happening in Argentina,” Filgueira said. “The lack of possibility of constructive dialogue between people that think different, and an escalation of violence in which we all lose, nobody wins.”
For MPP student Juan Ignacio Maquieyra, also from Argentina, both the president and the students were at fault for the tense question and answer session.
“I think it should be noted that she received some whistles while she was responding to some of the questions. I believe that was out of place,” he said. “I think we could say that both those who whistled at the President Kirchner, and Cristina herself, when she mistreated the students asking her questions, fell into an attitude that didn’t contribute to generate a fruitful debate.”
Kirchner has been declining in popularity since her reelection in 2011 when she was given a 65 percent approval rating, according to the Argentinean daily La Nación. Today, her approval rating has sunk to 40 percent. Critics charge that her administration manipulates key economic figures and that the head of state is not very open with the media.
Taking questions is an unusual departure from her normal public appearances, but it’s a prerequisite to presenting at the Kennedy School.
Esten Perez, director of communications for Harvard’s Institute of Politics, said, “We work to ensure a free exchange can occur in the first place by requiring Forum speakers to participate in an open and unfiltered question and answer session with the audience.
“Our events offer students and the public a rare opportunity to engage and express differing points of view with invited speakers,” he said.
For some students, it was a window into the leadership of Kirchner: “I began trying to explain what kind of person she was a while ago,” Saez said. “Now my classmates understand. In Argentina people are living in a totally manufactured, unnecessary but very real state of anger. You could see some that at the Forum on Thursday.”
Yet, for others, it was a missed opportunity.
“In the end, we all lost,” Filgueira said, “the students at Harvard that wanted to know about Argentina and her President, the Argentinean students and our country … I understand, and support, that one can be very critical of the president, but I don’t agree in a lack of respect when she is the President of our country, and our Guest at Harvard. It was very sad to see that.”