7 JULY 2007, Page 24

Argentina has what the world wants and may soon have a woman in charge

JONATHAN DAVIS IN BUENOS AIRES 1 n Washington, the campaign to put another Clinton in the White House is well underway. In Argentina, the next president could also be the wife of a man who has held the highest office before. President Nestor Kirchner, who grabbed the top job four years ago after polling just 22 per cent of the vote in the first round against a discredited Carlos Menem, comes up for re-election in October. As the deadline for nominations approached, it was always certain that a Kirchner would run. But would it be the President or his wife Cristina? For months, rumours circulated that Kirchner, who is said to have health problems, might stand aside and allow his missus to go for the job. This being Argentina, where Peron and his two wives remain controversial figures, the idea of an attractive, politically savvy woman taking power has inevitably excited intense debate.

Well, now we know. Mrs Kirchner — a Senator in her own right — is going to stand for president, and already the conspiracy theorists are having a field day. It has not gone unnoticed, for example, that the constitution was changed towards the end of Menem's time so that presidents are limited to a maximum of two consecutive terms. Previously the limit was two terms, period. What if Mrs Kirchner succeeds her husband, serves four years and then relinquishes the presidency back to him? Could the Kirchners go on indefinitely, creating a new political dynasty without being in technical breach of the constitution? The idea may be fanciful, but it remains a possibility.

Had Kirchner himself stood again, he would, most pundits think, have been a shoo-in. His approval ratings have fallen from their sky-high levels of a year ago, but despite a surprise setback in the recent Buenos Aires mayoral election, when his candidate was roundly thumped, the bookmakers had him at long odds on to gain reelection this autumn. Now the odds will have to be revised again, but the President's wife, an extrovert personality with a penchant for designer clothes, must have a good chance. With the Argentine economy heading for an unprecedented five straight years of 8 per cent per annum growth, the election is the Kirchners' to lose.

It's only six years since Argentina was deep in political and economic crisis, when years of corrupt, incompetent administration culminated in the government defaulting on its bonds, a massive devaluation of the peso, angry crowds in the streets and a state of paralysis that lasted for several months while the government haggled with the IMF. When Kirchner entered the race for president, few had even heard of him As governor for 12 years of Santa Cruz, the country's southernmost province, his public profile was lower than his wife's even then.

His political opportunism has paid off handsomely, however, and it all looks very different now. As in Beijing and Dublin, the skyline of Buenos Aires hums with building activity. The old docks are well on the way to becoming desirable condos for the wealthy. Away from the city, land prices have trebled in five years and agricultural exports are at record levels. The IMF's loans were repaid a couple of years back, the stock market is up fourfold in five years and investors are flocking once more to invest in a country which nature endowed with more natural resources, acre for acre, than almost any other. With a mild climate, forgiving soil and vast areas of undeveloped land, Argentina is a prime beneficiary of the dash for growth by China, India and other emerging markets. The world wants to eat more, prices of food and raw materials are rising (as is demand for biofuels), and Argentina has what the world wants, in abundance. George Soros, for one, is investing heavily in agricultural land, and many others are following his lead.

Not everyone buys the story that Argentina has taken a decisive turn for the better. In the annual report of Personal Assets, a Scottish investment trust, chairman Robert White is unimpressed: 'In 2001, Argentina was responsible for what no less a pundit than Mr Ed Balls described in a speech last year as the biggest default in history: $100 billion, which in 2005 it magnanimously repaid at 34 cents on the dollar — $67 billion of ill-gotten loot for the Argentinians. . . In the elegant tree-lined streets of Buenos Aires, it has to be said, no such indignation is apparent. Argentine business folk are not prone to enthusiasm about the capacity of their rulers to sustain sensible economic policies; but there are worse crimes here than putting one over a gullible foreign investor. Kirchner's policy of holding the peso artificially low and using export taxes to subsidise domestic food prices is pragmatic rather than doctrinaire. Real inflation, everyone knows, is much higher than government statistics claim. Already this summer there have been gas shortages. The feeling that another economic crisis will come at some point is widely shared; but the city's shops and bars are full to overflowing and for now even the country's instinctive pessimism is being held at bay.

most alumni of my old school dutifully follow the chosen Wiccamical path, carving out worthy careers in the law, banking and other professions. It's a refreshing pleasure, however, to find in Argentina an alumnus of Winchester who in no way fits the archetype. Sandy Harper tells me he never fancied life on the 6.58 from Haslemere, preferred playing polo to university, and embarked on a career as a commodity trader and 'merchant venturer'. For many years he carved out a profitable (if volatile) living in the hinterlands of Paraguay, Bolivia and Guinea, negotiating supplies of coffee, sugar and other soft commodities. As honorary consul of Guinea he was once kidnapped and threatened with death, although mercifully spared the fate of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Now settled in BA, he is still to be found on a polo pony and has interests in several ventures, including a hand in buying two farms in the Rio Negro valley in northern Patagonia where two wealthy English landowners are planning to produce organic beef for export to Europe. The name of Argentina used to conjure up Fray Bentos and industrial quantities of tinned corned beet now its meat is heading for Waitrose. Times indeed are changing.