The Argentine president's secret weapon? A super-charged youth movement.

La Cámpora, a political youth movement – 30,000-strong and mostly under 30 – is one of Fernandez de Kirchner's most significant political tools. But they stand out for more than just solidarity.

Enrique Marcarian/REUTERS
Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner addresses the audience during a meeting of the annual Mercosur trade bloc presidential summit in Mendoza June 29.

Moments after Argentina’s Congress passed a historic bill in April to nationalize the Spanish majority-owned oil company, YPF, a banner taking up half of the Congressional chamber was unfurled from the balcony. It depicted former President Néstor Kirchner with his fist raised in the air victoriously.

The same banner was on view just a week earlier during a rally attended by 100,000 activists in support of “the project” – a left-wing political ideology implemented by Mr. Kirchner before his 2010 death, and continued today by his wife, Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Both scenes were the work of La Cámpora, a political youth movement – 30,000-strong and mostly under the age of 30 – whose support for the president is unwavering. 

A continuation of the Peronist Youth to which Cristina and Néstor belonged in the 1970s, La Cámpora emphasizes Juan Domingo Perón’s fight for the poor and the Kirchners’ policies of social inclusion and state intervention.

But the group stands out for more than just its forthright display of solidarity: members are appointed high-ranking government positions, it is spearheaded by the Kirchners’ son, Máximo, and it is viewed as one of Ms. Fernández’s most significant political tools – one she desperately needs right now.

‘Soldiers of Cristina’

 Fernández won a second term last October with 54 percent of the vote, but her approval rating has dropped to 39 percent, according to polls.

Argentina’s middle classes took to the streets in June to protest against alleged corruption – including a scandal involving the vice president – the soaring inflation rate, and new restrictions on buying dollars. The head of umbrella union CGT, Hugo Moyano – once a loyal supporter of the Kirchners – also formalized his split with Fernández during a rally last week, accusing her of “overwhelming arrogance.”

Today, Fernández’s bedrock of support is represented by la juventud or “the youth” and, specifically, by La Cámpora.

The support the group drums up represents a “theatrical fanaticism” which a “disjointed” opposition cannot replicate, says Lucho Bugallo, founder of the website Argentina contra K, Argentina against Kirchner.

Unlike the Young Republicans in America, a grassroots organization that backs the Republican Party, La Cámpora is personalist. Just as the Peronist Youth fought for Perón’s return from exile, La Cámpora activists call themselves “soldiers of Cristina.”

‘A pillar’ of Kirchnerism

La Cámpora is named after former President Héctor Cámpora, who resigned after just 49 days in 1973 to facilitate Perón’s return to power. Its birth can be traced back to the economic crisis of 2001 where the saying Que se vayan todos – Away with them all – was employed by protesters who wanted to purge Argentine politics of its corrupt old-blood.

When Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, he committed to building a “generational bridge” between the government and young people, delegating the task to his only son, Máximo. 

Under Fernández, Kirchnerism – as her and Néstor’s governing philosophy is called – has institutionalized that bridge and made youth one of the pillars of its political model.

Fernández’s alignment with the youth has altered the traditional foundation of Peronist support – the trade unions. Her running battle with Mr. Moyano had intensified in June with a national strike by truckers, which called on Fernández to raise the income tax floor.

The rupture with Moyano came after the death of Néstor, under whose presidency his political influence had increased. But Fernández saw his power as excessive and cut his ties with Kirchnerism.

“The president has distanced herself from the unions in favor of a new loyal base whose ideas are entirely allied with the government,” Leandro Bullor, an economic historian at the University of Buenos Aires, says. 

“To think differently [than] Cristina is scorned upon,” Julio Bárbaro, a leading Peronist figure and former culture secretary, said in a television debate.

La Cámpora aspires to be an extension of the left-wing political movements of the '70s, such as the Montoneros, a Peronist guerrilla group obliterated by the military dictatorship, says Dr. Bullor. During Fernández’s speeches at the presidential palace, she often has to pause as activists who fill the back of the room declare themselves “soldiers of Cristina” and break into song about surviving the military’s executions – representative of their repudiation of the junta’s Dirty War against the left. 

Two members of La Cámpora’s inner circle are children of “disappeared” parents and Hijos, an organization for young people with the same background, is strongly linked to the group.

Government presence

Critics accuse Fernández of choosing members of La Cámpora for government posts, an “anti-democratic” process that contradicts the movement’s values, says  Bullor. 

Axel Kicillof, for example, was appointed economy vice-minister in December and is today viewed as Kirchnerism’s “golden boy.” Mr. Kicillof, a neo-Keynesian economist, led the YPF intervention and was named by Fernández as the government’s main representative on its board. He was close to the president’s side once again as she announced a state mortgage credit plan last month.

Other leading members of La Cámpora who hold legislative and government positions include the justice secretary; the CEO of Argentine Airlines, nationalized in 2008; two members of the lower house of Congress; and a deputy in the Buenos Aires government. 

“Many people join the La Cámpora as they see it as a route to public office,” Mr. Bugallo says.

Fernández has defended the presence of La Cámpora in her government. “They have just 29 posts out of nearly 30,000 in the whole country,” she said in a recent speech.

A family affair

Despite having little experience in politics, the Kirchners’ son, Máximo, is widely believed to influence his mother. He does not hold elected office.

Máximo is a diffident figure and rarely heard in public. But in her recent book, La Cámpora, author Laura Di Marco emphasizes the power he exerts. He told Fernández which members of the movement to put at the top of her Justicialist Party’s list of candidates before last October’s presidential and provincial elections, writes Ms. Di Marco.

However, Daniel Miguez, a former political editor at Clarín, a leading newspaper in Argentina, believes Máximo’s role is overstated by the anti-Kirchner media. “I think the relationship is given more relevance than it ought to,” Mr. Miguez says.

Today, La Cámpora has turned Néstor Kirchner into a mythical figure, accentuated by Fernández who refers to him simply as “él” or “he." He is lauded by some for turning Argentina away from neoliberalism in favor of a model of social equality, and brought to justice the military dictators that “disappeared” 30,000 people in the 1970s.

“Néstor began the reconstruction of Argentina after it had been decimated by the dictatorship and by [former President] Carlos Menem’s privatizations in the 1990s,” says a La Cámpora member in Buenos Aires. He asked to remain anonymous because of restrictions on speaking to the media imposed by the group, renowned for its secrecy. “He gave birth to this project and we believe in his fight against inequality.”

La Cámpora’s unrelenting poster campaigns cast Néstor as Argentina’s savior – he appears as the Eternauta, a 1950s science fiction character who fought against aliens that invaded the capital.

Fernández reaches her term limit in 2015 and her search for an heir to continue “the project” her husband started will most likely end in a member of the group, according to Bullor. 

Midterm elections take place next year and it is widely reported that Máximo will run for the Justicialist Party as a candidate for Buenos Aires Province. 

“Cristina will use the midterms to test the water,” for a successor Bullor says. “And it’s probable that the Kirchnerist candidate for 2015 will come from La Cámpora.”

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