Selected writing: Latin America

Argentina’s Stolen Children

1st May, 2011

DNA tests may reveal the truth about the adopted children of an Argentinean media tycoon. Were they stolen during the country’s ‘dirty war’? Christine Toomey investigates.

 The sleek neighbourhood of Martinez in the north of Buenos Aires had never seen anything like it. Police cars slewing across the road after giving chase from a nearby courtroom. Federal agents in combat gear spilling onto the streets. Press photographers swarming around the frightened figures of two of Argentina’s most prominent media scions.

Those who live in the sprawling mansions here are accustomed to being chauffeured to and fro in limousines with darkened windows to protect their identity. But on the morning of May 28 last year, all rights to privacy were stripped from the adopted son and daughter of one of South America’s wealthiest media moguls, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, head of the multibillion-dollar media conglomerate Grupo Clarin.

Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera were forced out of their car at the gates of their mother’s estate and bundled into her home under armed guard. They were then ordered to undress in front of at least seven officials. When it came to removing their underwear, the brother and sister, then both 34, were escorted to separate bathrooms. But, still under observation, they were forced to strip naked. Court officials sealed the siblings’ clothes in plastic bags, together with other personal items such as toothbrushes, combs and a pair of Felipe’s slippers.

With Felipe in tears, the siblings were told that their personal effects were being taken away for DNA testing on the orders of the court, contrary to their wishes, in an attempt to trace their biological origins. More specifically, to determine whether, as is alleged, they could be among the hundreds of Argentinians stolen as babies from parents arrested by the military dictatorship during the brutal 1976-1983 “dirty war” against suspected dissidents and subversives, and “disappeared” — the euphemism coined during those dark years for mass murder.

“In a normal country, a normal judge would have summoned Marcela and Felipe and listened to what they had to say. Instead she authorised evidence to be taken in such a way it left them traumatised,” says the siblings’ indignant lawyer, Alejandro Carrio, who witnessed their humiliation. “They both feel caught in the middle of a battle that has so many political overtones. It is all spectacularly unfair.”

But these are not normal times in Argentina. After more than two decades during which military henchmen behind some of the worst war crimes imaginable have luxuriated in comfortable retirement, the country’s current president — Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — is determined to bring those responsible to book. To most Argentines, the details of the depths of depravity to which the military regime sank during those years are sickeningly familiar. After arresting and torturing those they dubbed “subversives” — in many cases students, intellectuals or union members whose names were simply in the wrong address book — many thousands were loaded onto military aircraft, stripped naked and hurled to their deaths in the South Atlantic.

On February 28, eight military men, including General Jorge Rafael Videla, who once ruled the country as de facto president, went on trial in Buenos Aires charged with systematically stealing babies from parents murdered for their suspected left-wing sympathies. The majority of those killed were young adults. Many of the women were pregnant or mothers with small children who were abducted with them. Those infants not killed at the same time as their parents were handed over to sympathisers of the regime, in many cases childless military officers and their wives, who brought the children up as their own, changing their identities so they had no idea of their origins.

Of the estimated 500 babies and children abducted in this way, 102 have so far recovered their true identities after a tireless campaign by a group of their grandmothers, known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who never gave up hope of one day tracking down their stolen grandchildren. Some were traced to the homes of those who had illegally adopted them, after years of detective work by the Grandmothers acting on tip-offs from suspicious neighbours, teachers or doctors, and were restored to their biological families when they were still young. Many others only discovered the truth as adults. In the most harrowing instances, some had to face the appalling reality that they had been born in clandestine torture centres where their mothers were kept alive only long enough to give birth, so that their newborns could be snatched from their arms and, in some cases, raised by those directly responsible for their parents’ deaths.

This last nightmarish scenario could not have been the case with Marcela and Felipe, if official records are to be believed. According to court documents at the time, both were adopted within six months of the March 1976 military coup — before the junta’s murderous machinery had swung into full gear. These papers state that Marcela was left in a cardboard box on Ernestina Herrera de Noble’s doorstep at the beginning of May 1976, while Felipe is said to have been handed to Herrera de Noble when she went to court to submit papers to adopt Marcela in July of that year — the baby boy apparently having been abandoned by a single mother unable to look after him. Within a month, both newborns were registered as the legally adopted children of Herrera de Noble, already by then a powerful businesswoman with close links to the military regime following the death of her publishing impresario husband.

But a 2002 court investigation into the legality of the siblings’ adoption, instigated by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, found nobody in Argentina by the name of the woman said to have abandoned Felipe. Meanwhile, a man said to have witnessed Marcela being found on Herrera de Noble’s doorstep was revealed as a long-time employee of Grupo Clarin. The discoveries led to the brief arrest of Herrera de Noble that year on suspicion of knowingly adopting children of the disappeared — an allegation she has consistently denied.

The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. But in a statement after her release Herrera de Noble admitted she had been open with her children as they were growing up that “they and their parents may have been the victims of illegal repression” — an admission the Grandmothers have since used to press for the siblings’ genetic testing. If DNA matches were to reveal Marcela and Felipe were stolen children of the disappeared, and if it were proven that they were knowingly adopted as such by Herrera de Noble, the 85-year-old publisher could face criminal charges carrying a lengthy jail term.

Herrera de Noble claims investigations into the biological origins of her adopted children are politically motivated, driven by revenge on the part of the country’s president because of opposition to her regime in recent years by Grupo Clarin, which includes the country’s largest circulation daily newspaper, Clarin.

For their part, Marcela and Felipe say they have no interest in discovering their true origins because they are happy with Herrera de Noble as their mother. Although they both live independently now — Felipe is married with a young child, Marcela is divorced — both work as executives with Grupo Clarin. In one of the very few public statements they have made about the dispute, they complain of “being treated like criminals, though we have committed no crime”. “For the last 34 years we have lived with the blessing of a mother who chose us as her children and we chose her as our mother. Nothing and no-one can destroy that bond,” Marcela said in a rare television address, with her brother Felipe wringing his hands at her side.

Yet after forensic tests carried out on the siblings’ seized clothing concluded it had been contaminated with DNA traces from other people, courts ordered Marcela and Felipe to subject themselves to compulsory donation of blood, saliva, skin or hair samples, which they are refusing to do — despite having voluntarily given similar samples back in 2009, which were said by a former judge to have also been contaminated. Their lawyers argue that the latest court order requiring compulsory donation is an illegal invasion of their personal and physical integrity. The reclusive siblings contend that their biological identity is a personal matter and are preparing to take their fight as far as the Supreme Court.

At the heart of this continuing battle is a profound moral and legal conundrum. On the one hand is the right of children, now adults, to choose not to know their biological origins; on the other is the right of grandparents to attempt to restore the identity of those they believe could be the stolen offspring of their own children. Caught between these intensely emotional, conflicting interests is the obligation of the state to see that

Forty miles to the south of Buenos Aires, in the provincial town of La Plata, one grandmother is in no doubt about the rightful solution to this dilemma. Chicha Mariani, 86 and now nearly blind, sits surrounded by photographs of her murdered son, Daniel, daughter-in-law, Diana, and their smiling three-month-old baby, Clara Anahi, for whom she has spent the last 34 years searching. The fate of her son and daughter-in-law are beyond dispute. Diana died in a hail of bullets when the family’s home on the outskirts of La Plata came under army attack, including by helicopter gunships, on the morning of November 24, 1976. Under the guise of running a small meat-packing operation, she and Daniel had allowed their home to be used to house a secret printing press for a left-wing guerrilla group known as the Montoneros.

Eyewitnesses later testified that they saw Diana shot in the back and legs as she ran, with her baby in her arms, from the burning house. But while her charred remains and those of three other militants were later recovered, no trace was ever found of Clara Anahi. One witness says she saw the baby being bundled away in the arms of a man in uniform. Chicha’s son was shot on the street the following year.

On Chicha’s wall is a photograph of Clara Anahi propped up in a baby seat, wearing a pink woollen outfit. “I knitted that for her when she was born,” Chicha recalls, her face lighting up for an instant. “She was with me for just three months. But she is still part of me. For the little life I have left, my only wish is to see her once more, hold her in my arms and tell her about her parents.”

Even during the dictatorship, in defiance of the generals, Chicha and other Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo ignored the ban on public gatherings and started assembling weekly in the central square of Buenos Aires, marching silently in white headscarves, carrying pictures of their missing sons and daughters.

It was during these repressive years that Chicha first suspected that her grandchild might have been passed to Ernestina Herrera de Noble to raise as her adopted daughter, Marcela. In the years after adopting Marcela and Felipe, photographs of the media magnate and the children would sometimes appear in the pages of her flagship daily, Clarin. “When I saw those early photographs of Marcela, there was something about her I recognised,” says Chicha. “Even now when I see photos of her I see certain characteristics that are similar to mine — the way she holds her hands, the shape of her legs.” But there is more to it than that.

In the first desperate months after Clara Anahi disappeared, Chicha went knocking on the doors of senior figures in the Catholic Church, both in La Plata and Buenos Aires, asking for help in tracing her granddaughter, but was quickly told to stop looking because the infant was “untouchable” and, by then, “in the hands of a very powerful person”. Some Catholic clerics have since been convicted of colluding with the military in covering up crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Despite her suspicions, Chicha did not act on them for many years, not only because the prevailing political climate made progress difficult, but also because her granddaughter disappeared months after records showed Marcela was adopted. When investigations revealed errors and obfuscations in both Marcela and Felipe’s adoption papers, the veracity of the date on which they were signed was also called into question and the Grandmothers’ petition that the siblings submit to DNA testing led to years of legal wrangling.

Chicha admits she is losing hope. “For the past 35 years I have continued to believe I would one day hold my granddaughter in my arms again. But now, because of my age, I’m beginning to doubt it. All those years my love for my son and his family kept me going, maybe my anger fed me too. But now I can hardly see or hear. I don’t have the force I once had. It is very hard,” says Chicha, who eventually separated herself from the Grandmothers to found her own organisation, Asociacion Anahi, dedicated to the search for her granddaughter.

With unlimited financial resources, however, lawyers for the Noble siblings are determined to fight to the bitter end any court orders relating to DNA testing. For Chicha Mariani is not the only one to suspect Marcela could be her granddaughter. Another family also believes that Ernestina Herrera de Noble’s adopted daughter bears a striking physical resemblance to the mother of their missing granddaughter, Matilde Lanuscou. Barbara Miranda and Roberto Lanuscou, both Montoneros, died in a shootout with soldiers in September 1976, along with two of their three children, aged four and five. Six-month-old Matilde was said to have died with them, but during an investigation after the dictatorship ended, Matilde’s coffin was found to contain only baby clothes and a dummy. Photographs of Matilde’s mother, Barbara, in her twenties show she shares very similar looks to Marcela.

It is believed Felipe, meanwhile, could be the son of Maria Gualdero, who was 20 years old and nine months pregnant when she was seized by security forces in June 1976, though her family is reluctant to discuss the case publicly. In an effort to bring the legal wrangling to an end, Marcela and Felipe did agree seven years ago to their DNA being tested against that of the Miranda and Gualdero families, though not that of Chicha, who appealed to them separately.

When the Grandmothers insisted that, if no match were found in these two instances, their DNA should be kept on record so that testing could be expanded in future to include all those families in the National Genetic Data Bank, the siblings’ lawyers dug their heels in and prevented the DNA testing from going ahead. Since this data bank, originally set up as an independent organ at the insistence of the Grandmothers, now falls under state jurisdiction, they argue its results could be manipulated by the government. “They are afraid if their genetic map ends up in that data bank, it could be the basis for

Lawyers for the families of the disappeared, on the contrary, believe it is the siblings who are trying to delay court proceedings for as long as possible. “The legal strategy of Grupo Clarin is to drag this out until Ernestina dies to avoid the possibility of her facing any kind of trial,” argues Pablo Llonto, who represents the Lanuscou family. To those stolen children who have recovered their identities, however, the lengths to which Marcela and Felipe are prepared to go to protect their adoptive mother are entirely understandable.

Even those who have discovered the most shocking truth of all about their origins, and whose cases form the basis of the current trial against Videla and his henchmen, sympathise with the dilemma the siblings face.

“I believe there are many similarities between what happened to me and what is happening now with the Noble children,” says Pedro Sandoval, who was 29 when he discovered, in 2006, that his whole life to that point had been a lie. Pedro was raised with the name Alejandro Rei and believed he was the natural son of a military policeman called Victor Rei and his wife. When Rei was arrested in 2004 on suspicion of having appropriated a stolen child, Pedro was convinced of Rei’s innocence. But his DNA confirmed he was the son of a murdered 32-year-old union activist, Pedro Sandoval, and his 20-year-old wife, Liliana Fontana. Liliana was five months pregnant when she was arrested in July 1977 and gave birth to him in a secret detention and torture centre before she was killed.

Yet even when he knew the truth, Pedro testified in favour of his abductor at a trial in which Rei was sentenced to 16 years in prison, saying how well cared for and loved he had felt as a child. “It was only at the end of the trial that the reality of what had happened sunk in,” he says. “I believe I was suffering from a severe form of Stockholm syndrome, completely unable to think for myself while I was still under the influence of those who abducted me.” Pedro believes the Noble siblings could be suffering in the same way. “It is much harder the older you are.”

Another recovered grandchild who understands this only too well is Victoria Montenegro, who was 25 and married with three children when she discovered the man she had grown up believing was her father was in fact the person who had shot her real parents dead. Victoria was only 13 days old when the house where her parents, Hilda Torres and Roque Montenegro, lived on the outskirts of Buenos Aires was stormed by soldiers under the command of the army colonel Hernan Tetzlaff, who, together with his wife, went on to raise her under a false date of birth and the name Maria Sol Tetzlaff.

After a tip-off about her real identity, the Grandmothers filed a petition with the courts that eventually led to her being forced to submit to a blood test that confirmed their suspicion in 2001. “The first thing I felt when they gave me the result of the tests was a terrible shame that I was the daughter of subversives. Then immediately I became afraid that my father would not love me any more,” says Victoria, who, despite everything she now knows at the age of 35, continues to call Tetzlaff her father. A large framed photograph of Victoria as a young child perched on his shoulders, gently clutching his cheeks, stands on the bookshelf in her home. “I can’t lie to myself. I loved him very much,” she says picking up the picture of Tetzlaff, who died in jail.

It took Victoria five years to accept her real identity and change her name from Maria Sol. “I didn’t want to know the truth. I didn’t want to see the man who had raised me go to prison. I felt that by giving my blood for DNA testing, that gesture of extending my arm for the needle, made me responsible for someone I had spent my whole life loving ending up in jail.”

It was partly in order to take away any misplaced feelings of culpability, but also to speed up the process of stolen children recovering their true identity, that a law was passed in November 2009 making it compulsory for those suspected of being children of the disappeared to submit to DNA testing whether they wish it or not. It is the constitutionality of this legal obligation that the Noble siblings are determined to fight as far as the Supreme Court.

There are some Grandmothers who agree, however, that a compulsory blood test is going too far. “By forcing someone to have a needle stuck in their arm against their will, you are in danger of using the same repressive attitude that our own children suffered as a result of. There are other ways of obtaining DNA that are not as intrusive,” says Elsa Pavon, whose daughter and son-in-law are among the disappeared, but whose granddaughter, Paula, was found living with a senior police officer and his wife and returned to her when the child was just eight years old. Yet Paula’s true identity was also confirmed as a result of a blood test, and Paula herself does not question this. “I think the state has the right to know. The truth is the truth, and there is no going back from that,” says the 35-year-old mother. She has two young daughters, to whom she has yet to explain the circumstances in which she lived as a child. “When they are old enough I will talk to them about it. But these things are very hard for children to understand.”

Twelve years ago, when I first wrote about the children of the disappeared, I was haunted by the words of one psychologist who worked with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. “The aim of the military, in abducting babies and annihilating their real identities, was to institute a form of state terrorism that would operate over generations,” said Dardo Tumas. “What the military did was introduce a form of poison that continues to seep through this society.”

This is precisely why the state has a duty to make DNA testing mandatory, argues the lawyer Pablo Llonto. “It is the obligation of the state to protect the rights of future generations,” he contends. “Identity is not just a matter for the individual, whose right to privacy can be protected if it affects just that person. But what has happened in Argentina is something that will affect generations to come, including the children of those who were stolen as babies.”

Chicha Mariani’s gentle face hardens for a moment when I ask if she feels those suspected of having been abducted as babies should be forced to submit to genetic testing against their will. “If it was your grandchild who was stolen, would you be asking that question?”

Ecuador: the Amazon’s dirty war

November 29, 2009

In the Ecuadorean Amazon basin our thirst for oil has triggered an eco-disaster: wholesale pollution and catastrophic cancer rates. And a bloody turf war has broken out. Ecuador is taking a survival plan to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. But will western governments listen?

Torrential rain has washed away the blood where the family fell under a hail of wooden spears. But memories of what happened this summer are still fresh in the minds of those who live and work here.

At first the security guard inside the perimeter fence of the oil drilling station is nervous and warns us to keep our distance as we approach. Darkness is falling and he is alone on duty. But he slowly opens up and describes how, on a morning in August, a 12-year-old girl, run through with two spears nearly 12ft in length, managed to stagger to the front gate of the drilling station to raise the alarm before she collapsed and died.

A short distance away, on a dirt track hidden from view by dense foliage, the bodies of her mother and 17-year-old brother were found by oil workers, pierced by more than a dozen similar spears. Her baby brother had been kidnapped. Before she died, the girl gave a description of their attackers: they were almost entirely naked.

From the shape of the spears and the coloured feathers on them, they have since been identified as almost certainly belonging to one of the world’s last known “uncontacted” tribes: the Taromenane.

In the whole of its history the tribe has never had any peaceful contact with the outside world, choosing to live totally isolated from civilisation in this area of breathtaking beauty at the headwaters of the Amazon. They are supposed to be a protected people, but they are fighting for their survival and that of their ancestral land. It is a struggle with surprising implications for all of us.

Sandra Zavala, her son Byron and daughter Damaris were easy targets, stragglers behind a group of men with machetes who were working to clear a path through the rainforest. Oil exploration in the forest has encouraged illegal logging and colonisation by poor Ecuadoreans from other parts of the country and led to clashes in which many innocent lives have been lost. Sandra, 35, and her children were just the latest victims in a vicious turf war triggered by our thirst for oil.

Close to Ecuador’s borders with Colombia and Peru, this swathe of territory — much of it now included in the Yasuni national park — is also at the forefront of another, global battle. Yasuni is home to a vast array of rare flora and fauna. It has the largest number of tree species per hectare in the world (more in just one hectare than the whole of North America), together with endangered monkeys, pumas and jaguars and 44% of the entire bird population of the Amazon basin stretching far beyond its borders. But beneath the surface is immense wealth of a different kind: more than a billion barrels of crude oil.

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, is promoting a plan he describes as “not only simple, but audacious and revolutionary”. In the run-up to next month’s UN climate-change conference in Copenhagen, he and his team have been circling the globe to drum up support for a scheme that would leave 850m barrels of oil in the eastern section of the park untouched underground.

In return for not pumping this oil, they are asking other countries to pay Ecuador $350m a year for the next 10 years to compensate for lost income. Correa’s plan is designed to preserve what is left of Yasuni’s unique biosphere and the territory of its indigenous people and would also prevent carbon-dioxide emissions caused by extracting and burning this oil — an estimated total of 410m metric tons of CO2.

In Yasuni, meanwhile, the battle is raging for control of resources. Active drilling and oil production are taking place in several blocks of land, including one close to the heart of the park operated by the Spanish conglomerate Repsol and two in the northwest operated by the Chinese company Petro Oriental, which runs the drilling station where the Zavalas were killed. The family came from a small community of settlers, Los Reyes, that has sprung up close to the oil wells.

The Taromenane have killed settlers and illegal loggers before, in retaliation for attacks on their dwindling numbers. In 2003, 26 Taromenane women and children were ambushed and killed. Their attackers were never caught but are thought to have been Waorani, another, larger group of indigenous people, many of whom have been co-opted to work for the oil companies.

In an effort to protect the territory of these indigenous communities, the southern half of Yasuni and an area beyond was marked out two years ago as a so-called “untouchable zone” where they could continue their hunter-gatherer existence undisturbed. But the Taromenane have no way of knowing that such a zone exists, let alone its limits. They only know that their ancestral land is under threat. Those who attacked the Zavala family a few miles beyond the boundary of the zone did not keep the kidnapped baby. They stole back to the area two days later and left the infant propped in a hollow tree trunk close to where his mother had died. He was quickly found, dehydrated but otherwise well.

In line with official policy of not forcing contact with the Taromenane, no action was taken in the aftermath of the killing. (In the past, indigenous peoples have been decimated by diseases brought in through forced contact with the outside world.) “We don’t want to put these tribes in a crystal box and conserve them for eternity,” says a government spokesman, Eduardo Pichilingue. “We want to leave it up to them to decide how and when they change. They have that right.”

Instead of punishing the tribe, the government called for the Hormiguero Sur drilling station to be closed down. But as we stand talking to the guard there two months later, straining to make ourselves heard above the roar of a generator pumping oil, it is clear this order is being ignored. Attempts to challenge Petro Oriental executives at a nearby headquarters are met with indifference.

“We can’t comment,” said Luis Gomez, director of community relations. “All I can say is we get blamed for everything bad that goes on around here. It’s even our fault, they say, when a wife leaves her husband.” He laughs, before hastily ushering us out of the floodlit compound.

This brushoff is mild compared to the repeated stonewalling of the Spanish company Repsol, which has drilling operations close to the heart of Yasuni. In addition to triggering tensions of the kind that led to the deaths of the Zavala family, Repsol has recently been accused of causing some of the worst environmental destruction in this part of the Amazon rainforest, with a series of huge oil spills. According to the Spanish branch of Greenpeace, Repsol sent 14,000 barrels of crude oil gushing over the landscape in February. The spill caused such widespread pollution that environmental activists called for all concessions granted to Repsol throughout the Amazon region to be withdrawn. Repsol refuses to comment.

We were initially given permission by Repsol to visit a scientific research station run by Ecuador’s Catholic University within its concession area. From there we planned to travel to some of the indigenous communities said to have been affected by the spills.

But when we arrive by motor launch at Repsol’s first security outpost, we find a notice pinned on a perimeter fence warning employees: “It is your responsibility to maintain strict secrecy regarding your work.” As our photographer starts taking pictures, he is warned by security guards with submachineguns to put his cameras away.

At the scientific station: impasse. Repsol backtracks on its offer of co-operation and says it has nobody for us to liaise with locally. Fearing repercussions from the oil company, which controls all access roads to and from the university-run scientific station, academic staff there become anxious and reluctant to talk. They withdraw an offer of a truck to visit indigenous communities several hours’ drive away and seem keen for us to leave.

Stark evidence of the long-term destruction caused by oil companies in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest lies less than 100 miles northwest of Yasuni. In parts of the rainforest as yet untouched by the incessant search for oil, the song of rare birds and the screeching of monkeys fill the air. But close to the oil installations, the only signs of wildlife are the vultures circling on thermal currents above flare stacks burning off unwanted gas and emitting an acrid smell.

People in the sprawling area between the oil towns of Coca and Lago Agrio, which has been booming since the 1960s, have had a chilling foretaste of what others may face unless the drilling is contained. Here, in a region dubbed “the Rainforest Chernobyl”, decades of drilling by the American giant Texaco, taken over in 2001 by the Chevron Corporation, has led to toxic contamination over thousands of miles. Local communities are suffering catastrophic rates of cancer and other diseases, which has prompted a historic $27-billion court battle. If the 30,000 Ecuadorean plaintiffs are successful, legal history could be made, with the largest damages award ever handed down in an environmental case.

A few miles east of Coca lies the village of San Carlos. Most who live here came to the area in the 1970s to farm along routes cut through the rainforest as oil exploration began. There is little forest left now and little productive farming. Much of the land in this region that stretches north to the border with Colombia was long ago contaminated by millions of gallons of toxic waste, gas and crude oil released untreated into the environment. Most of the inhabitants have depended for decades on contaminated drinking water from polluted rivers and streams. Rates of cancer of all kinds are nearly four times higher than in areas where there is no oil drilling. The incidence of other illnesses such as skin and bone disease, respiratory and digestive problems and spontaneous abortions are also far higher. Most of the people living here have been dependent for decades on contaminated drinking water taken directly from polluted rivers and streams.

Beatrice Mainaguez cradles a photograph of her younger sister Maria, who died of uterine cancer three years ago aged 35. She talks of the “bitter pain” of watching her grow thinner and thinner before she died. Maria, a mother of five, had lived in San Carlos since she was an infant. Her family took their drinking water from a creek that ran close to one of the many oil wells Texaco sank in and around San Carlos in the 1970s and ’80s. It was not until four years ago that the family shack was connected to mains water, and eight months ago to electricity.

A short distance away, Orlando Molina hugs his daughters Sofia, 15, and Yuri, 17, who squirm with embarrassment as he asks them to roll up their trouser legs to show me the bone deformities both were born with.

Orlando says doctors told him the deformities were likely to have been caused by their mothers’ milk being leached of nutrients because she drank water that had drained through soil contaminated by spills from the Texaco wells. His extended family used to live on a coffee farm within a few hundred feet of a Texaco facility on the outskirts of San Carlos that was subsequently taken over by the state company Petroecuador. Both his parents died of stomach cancer, his sister of breast cancer and a brother of prostate cancer.

Orlando spent most of the $4,500 Petroecuador eventually gave him for gobbling up his small landholding on medical treatment to help straighten his daughter’s legs. With the $1,200 left over he bought a two-room wooden shack where his family of six now live.

“Sixty-five per cent of the population around here are suffering from respiratory and gastric problems, skin disease and other illnesses,” says Rosa Moreno, a nurse who has been in the San Carlos area for 25 years. “We don’t have any specialist doctors to diagnose them properly or analyse the causes. But to anyone who lives round here it’s obvious that the problems are related to pollution caused by the oil companies.”

Walk anywhere near these waste pits and you still sink ankle-deep in tar. Other stretches of land that appear green move unnervingly underfoot; poke a stick through the grass and you simply find lakes of black sludge.

Last year a team of engineers, doctors and biologists submitted a court-ordered report, which concluded that Texaco had polluted streams and drinking water across an area of nearly 2,000 square miles, and caused 2,091 cases of cancer, leading to 1,401 deaths between 1985 and 1998. Chevron’s lawyers say the area’s health problems are caused only by poverty and poor sanitation.

Faced with the possibility of losing the legal battle and having to pay staggering levels of compensation, the company has now made moves to argue before an international court of arbitration in the Hague that the case against the oil companies in Ecuador has been unfair. The outcome is still uncertain: the judge in Ecuador is not due to hand down his judgment until next year.

So far only Germany has made a concrete effort to support Correa’s plan, offering to donate $50m a year for the next decade — on condition that an international trust fund be set up into which donor countries would pay money. All donors would receive “Yasuni bonds” guaranteeing that their contributions would be returned, with interest, if Ecuador were ever to tap the protected oil reserves. Spain, France and Italy have also expressed interest by cancelling debts owed by Ecuador. The British government has not yet been formally approached, but when Correa’s advisers were due to meet MPs earlier this year to discuss the plan, they were told that our parliamentarians were too busy dealing with the expenses scandal.

Correa has made it clear that if he does not get backing for his plan, he will be forced to allow further drilling in Yasuni. “Climate change has been produced principally by the rich countries,” he has said, “and they have a duty to take responsibility for that. What we are proposing is a constructive way to redress the imbalance and stop further polluting of the planet.”

The entire Amazon region is the largest green lung in the world. Its trees and plants produce one-fifth of the Earth’s oxygen and absorb as much CO2 every year as is created by the burning of fossil fuels in the entire EU. Preserving the natural environment in this area is a key element of the fight against global warming.

The bloodbath among the locals must also come to an end: the Zavala family were innocents swept up in the thirst for oil.

But is anyone really listening?



The life and loves of Fidel Castro

March 28, 2008

While revolutionising Cuba, Fidel Castro had another, more personal, agenda: he was an insatiable womaniser who callously abandoned his lovers and left behind a string of illegitimate children

There are no photographs of her parents in the bungalow in Miami’s Little Havana where Alina Fernandez Revuelta lives. But she need only glance at the triangular birthmark on her left arm to be reminded of the illicit union that led to her conception. The skin blemish runs in the family of Fidel Castro.

When Alina was a few months old, Castro dispatched one of his sisters to check if the infant bore the mark. Only then did he accept she was his. Ten years later, Alina’s mother, Natalia “Naty” Revuelta, told her the man who sometimes visited their house at night, enveloping the girl in clouds of cigar smoke and, once, giving her a bearded doll dressed in olive-green uniform to look like himself, was her father. When she was 12, Castro conceded Alina could carry his name. After a childhood of neglect, of being ignored when she wrote begging him to visit, she refused. By then Castro was firmly entrenched as Cuba’s Maximo Jefe — maximum leader — a position he would hold for nearly half a century, until anointing his brother Raul president earlier this year.

The chaos Castro’s communist regime has wrought on one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean has seen more than 2m of his countrymen flee into exile. But it is his personal path of destruction through the lives of those closest to him, the legions of women he has slept with and the children they have borne him, that has, until now, been a closely guarded secret.

Castro’s private life has always been strictly taboo in Cuba’s state-controlled media. He has rarely been photographed with any of the women he has been involved with, and whenever such pictures have appeared, the women have been captured coincidentally, in the background.

The overwhelming image of Castro for 50 years has been that of a lone, ranting David taking on every capitalist Goliath, especially the US. Castro long ago made a cold calculation that his power would only last if his countrymen, and the rest of the world, did not really know him.

“He was good at PR,” says Alina, a diminutive 52-year-old with doleful brown eyes. “He always portrayed himself as this lonely man with a beard and cigar, fighting imperialism 24 hours a day with nothing else on his mind.” Nothing could be further from the truth. As his countrymen brace themselves for the mandatory flag-waving that will accompany the 50th anniversary of the revolution next month, Alina and others who fled to the “city of worms”, as the Cuban strongman calls Miami, are stripping away Castro’s mask. The picture they paint is of a serial philanderer with an unknown number of progeny.

“My mother always said he was very passionate,” says Alina. Castro wooed her mother, a green-eyed high-society belle, with feverish letters written from prison, when he was incarcerated between November 1953 and May 1955 after his first attempt to overthrow Cuba’s despised dictator Fulgencio Batista. They begin, “My dearest Naty”, “My incomparable Naty”. “You’re audacious and I like that. I am on fire. Write to me, for I cannot be without your letters. I love you very much.”

“When you’re in jail you have all the time in the world to become a poet, a manipulator, a psychologist,” Alina says. She has reason to be bitter. She and her mother suffered at Castro’s hands. So did the woman he was married to when he was declaring his love for Naty. Mirta Diaz-Balart had already borne Castro a son, Fidelito, or Little Fidel, four years old when his father was jailed. Castro met Mirta through her brother, a fellow law student at Havana University, and pursued her despite opposition from her family, which had connections to the Batista regime and thought him beneath her. Castro was the third of seven children born out of wedlock to a domestic servant, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, and her master, Angel Castro, a peasant who became a wealthy sugar-plantation owner. During his early years, Fidel and his siblings lived with their mother in a shack adjoining the house where Angel lived with his wife and their two children.

At the age of five, Castro and two siblings were sent to live with impoverished Haitian foster parents. He was then sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Havana, where, though a brilliant student, he was bullied for being illegitimate and not baptised. “His psychological make-up comes from being a bastard, a second-class citizen in his own home, who grew up determined he’d never be made to feel that way again,” says Andy Gomez, assistant provost at Miami University’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “Since he had little sense of identity as he was growing up, he created his own” — one that would always be in control, never again dependent on anyone, least of all a woman.

“I’ve a feeling that deep down he may be shy and emotionally vulnerable,” Alina concedes.

Castro was well into his teens before his father dissolved his first marriage and married Lina. From then on, it seems his parents indulged him materially, paying for a lavish honeymoon when he married Mirta in 1948. But he soon tired of his bride, who had little interest in politics. Sure that armed struggle could overthrow Batista, he was fast becoming a charismatic champion of social justice and national sovereignty, and his attempts to foment revolt were attracting followers, including Naty Revuelta. Also married, but bored, she sold her jewels for the rebels to buy weapons and sent Castro the key to her home (in an envelope laced with perfume) so that he could hold clandestine meetings there. Their relationship was still platonic when Castro was jailed. But he was infatuated with the woman once described as having the looks of a movie star “dipped by the gods into a golden oil, like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth”.

By this time Mirta’s family connections with the Batista regime had driven a wedge between her and Castro, and in one letter to Naty he joked cruelly that at least prison gave him some peace from domestic arguments: “I’m going to write to the [prison] tribunal reproaching them for having sentenced me to 15 years rather than 200.” Two letters Castro wrote to his wife and would-be lover were switched. When Mirta read what had been meant for Naty she was devastated, filed for divorce and quickly married again, moving with Fidelito to New York. Castro vowed revenge, writing to one of his sisters from prison that he could not bear to think of his son sleeping under the same roof as “my most repulsive enemies”.

A messy custody battle over Fidelito followed the divorce. Mirta once resorted to kidnapping her son when Castro refused to return him after a visit, and was then forced to return to live in Cuba if she wanted to remain with her child. She eventually went into exile in Spain and has never spoken of her marriage to Castro, some believe because if she did she’d never be allowed back to Cuba to visit her Fidelito, now a 59-year-old nuclear scientist with children of his own.

Care of his son was not uppermost in Castro’s mind, however, when he got out of prison. He swiftly indulged his passion for Naty, and Alina was conceived. He then left for a period of exile in Mexico, to continue plotting revolution with his new comrade-in-arms, Che Guevara, before returning to Cuba and spending two years waging guerrilla warfare from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. When his rebel band overthrew Batista in January 1959, Castro paraded the streets of Havana astride a Sherman tank with Fidelito and another loyal comrade-in-arms, Huber Matos, by his side. From then, the revolutionary hero had women at his feet. “He was young, charismatic and powerful. He didn’t have to do much to attract them,” says Alina. During the Sierra Maestra years, he had acquired a new mistress. Celia Sanchez, not known for her looks, was a committed revolutionary and a born organiser. She would jealously guard Castro from other women for the next 2½ decades.

Huber Matos perches on the edge of his seat in the Miami home where he has lived in exile for nearly 30 years, his eyes blazing as he spits out the words “crook”, “unscrupulous” and “zero morals” to describe the man he once fought alongside for Cuba’s freedom. Matos is remarkably fit for a man of 90 who spent 20 years in prison — 16 in solitary confinement — for accusing Castro of betraying the democratic ideals of the Cuban revolution.

Matos and Celia Sanchez were close friends. “She was a good person, very Catholic, very passionate about social justice,” he says. “When I got there it was very clear she was sleeping with Castro. She was both his secretary and his lover. He told me she was ‘very useful’. I thought he should have treated her with more respect, but women were just instruments to Castro. I do not believe he is a man with any personal sentiment or feelings. He uses people, and once they have served their purpose he gets rid of them.”

Castro may have felt little for the women he slept with, but he inflamed strong passions in them, as Matos recalls when he describes how Celia reacted when one very attractive young teacher offered the maximum leader private English lessons. “I was standing at the bottom of the stairs as Castro came down and this blonde teacher shouted after him, ‘Don’t forget those private lessons, Fidel! I’ll be waiting for you!’ Then I saw Celia come up behind her and sink her nails into the woman’s back to get her out of the way. She was very jealous.” Castro completely ignored the catfight going on behind him, Matos says. “He was totally indifferent.”

Celia’s gatekeeping failed to prevent numerous sexual liaisons, as Castro’s prowess increased with his power. One of the few to have kissed and told on the Cuban leader is Marita Lorenz, then a naive 19-year-old German-American concentration camp survivor, whom Castro seduced in February 1959. Lorenz claims he installed her as his lover for seven months in a suite in the Havana Libre hotel, formerly the Havana Hilton, which he took over as his private residence in the months after deposing Batista. “Every day, letters came from women all over the world offering to do anything to meet him,” Lorenz, who witnessed a string of flings, has said. She was spurned, she says, after she became pregnant and had an abortion.

She returned to the US and was enlisted by the CIA to assassinate her former lover. They gave her two capsules of botulism to drop in his drink. But, waiting for him in the Havana Libre, she panicked and flushed them down the bidet. In a scene straight out of a thriller, Lorenz describes how Castro came in, lay down on the bed with a cigar and asked her: “Did you come here to kill me?” When she admitted she had, he pulled out a handgun and, with his eyes closed, passed it to her. She describes how Castro chewed his cigar, smiled and said, “You can’t kill me. Nobody can”, before sleeping with her and allowing her to flee.

The CIA failed in more than 630 attempts to assassinate the Cuban leader, while his reputation as a lady-killer flourished. There was his reputed affair with the Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, and alleged couplings with an unnamed Cuban actress who claimed he was a selfish brute for simply “putting his pants down, and quick”. One underage dancer at the Tropicana nightclub said he smoked throughout; another said he never took his boots off.

Celia didn’t put a stop to such dalliances, seeing them as little threat. But one relationship she was determined to thwart was that with Alina’s mother, barring her rival’s access to Castro at every turn. When Alina was eight, she was dispatched to Paris with her mother, who had been given a spurious mission to carry out chemical espionage, on the orders, Alina believes, of the woman she calls “La Venenosa” — the poisonous one. When they returned to Cuba, Naty was kept on the sidelines and shunted from one minor ministerial job to another.

Alina was a nervous and rebellious teenager, developing eating disorders for which her father ordered she undergo psychiatric treatment. She married four times in quick succession — her father attending only the first nuptials — and started mixing with dissidents. When Castro refused to let her leave the island, Alina sought the help of exiles and, in 1993, at the age of 37, was eventually smuggled out on a false passport.

Naty remained in Havana and has never spoken critically of Castro. “She receives no privileges now or special attention. She has gone through very hard times. I think her heart was broken by my father,” says Alina. It is the only time in our conversation she has called him that.

Drive west through Havana’s suburbs and eventually you approach what used to be a fishing village, Jaimanitas. After the revolution, the area became heavily militarised. There is a military academy here, but also a far more secret installation — bristling with soldiers and secret police — that those Cubans who know of its existence call Punto Cero, or ground zero. At the heart of the complex is a swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts, a helicopter landing pad and the entrance to a tunnel to Havana’s military airport. It is said that Castro could survive at this secret compound for two years without ever having to leave.

For years it was rumoured that, in addition to Celia, who kept an apartment in Havana, Castro had another long-term mistress living at ground zero: Dalia Soto del Valle had been a champion swimmer in her youth and had caught Castro’s eye in the early 1960s, when she worked as a teacher on his literacy campaign. Dalia, known as Lala, bore Castro five sons, all with names beginning with “A” in homage, it is said, to Alexander the Great, Castro’s hero: Angel, Alex, Antonio, Alejandro and Alexis. There were even reports that Castro and Dalia had married in 1980 (the year Celia died), though Castro seemed to dispel such rumours in an interview with Oliver Stone in 2003 when he said being married once was “more than enough”.

Images of Dalia seated several rows behind Castro at public events have surfaced over the years. Then six years ago an ex-girlfriend of their son Antonio smuggled out of Cuba a secretly filmed video of Castro with Dalia, their grown sons and several grandchildren. The Cuban leader was pictured eating breakfast in his pyjamas and chatting with his grandchildren as they played in the pool. In 2006 a young woman named Idalmis Menendez fled into exile and began talking in detail about Castro’s secret home life. Idalmis had been married to Castro and Dalia’s second son, Alex. She portrayed Dalia as a scheming spy who secretly taps her sons’ phones and passes reports of their conversations to their father; she said Castro would pore over these reports at night while watching videos of dissident activity filmed by Cuba’s secret police on a giant TV screen — one of his few luxury items — in his private quarters. While Castro, now 82, lives relatively frugally — his brother Raul, 77, being the one to indulge in the material trappings of power — Idalmis says Dalia dresses simply only in Castro’s company. As soon as he leaves, Idalmis says her former mother-in-law changes into designer clothes and smothers herself with Chanel perfume.

Very little is known about Castro and Dalia’s sons. “For some reason he secluded her from the rest of the family. It seems she [Dalia] is now more known abroad than in Cuba. Yet she is the one who has lasted. Maybe she is more patient,” Alina muses about a woman she has never met.

Alina did meet her older half-brother Fidelito, by chance, in a lift when she was 12 and he was 18 and both were going to visit their Uncle Raul. From him she learnt about the existence of another half-brother, roughly Fidelito’s age, called Jorge Angel, conceived on a train in the autumn of 1948. The three siblings eventually formed a friendship of sorts.

Many years later, when Alina was plotting to leave Cuba, she heard of yet another half-brother who wanted to get to know her. The two secretly met “on the street”, Alina says, reluctant to give more details, even his name, for fear he might faces reprisals from his father. She does say that he was one of Castro and Dalia’s sons.

Within days of coming to live in Miami in 2001, after a period spent in Spain and elsewhere in the US, Alina was informed by her aunt (Castro’s sister Juanita, who fled into exile more than 40 years ago) that she also had a half-sister, Francisca Pupo, who had been living in exile in Miami for five years. She knows little more about her than that. Many of those who know about Castro’s youthful indiscretions have taken their secrets to the grave.

Lazaro Asencio, 83, also fled into exile in Miami after falling out with Castro. He recalls the Cuban leader asking to borrow his blue Buick car for the night in 1952. “He said he wanted to take a pretty local girl out,” says Asencio. Years later he was approached in the street by a woman holding the hand of a seven-year-old girl. The child, she told him, had been conceived in the back of his car that night. Castro later dispatched his brother to buy her a house and organise birthday parties for their daughter. Asencio doesn’t know if Castro ever came to visit the girl himself. The daughter was Francisca Pupo.

When I ask Alina how many siblings she thinks she has, she pauses. “There are eight,” she says, hesitating slightly before adding, “I think.”

The number could be far higher. Almost as an aside, Andy Gomez of Miami University told me the story of a German businessman he met who, in 2002, had just returned from a business trip to Cuba. At one formal dinner, in a gesture of largesse, Castro had turned to him and said, “I am going to give you a gift,” before leaning back to his doctor, always in close attendance, and instructing him to “get my German friend here a box of those pills I take on a daily basis”.

Gomez took the pills to be analysed, hoping to shed light on Castro’s secret health issues (a year before, Castro had fainted in public). “When the lab called me back, they said, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ ” says Gomez, containing his laughter. “Those pills were the highest strength Viagra available on the market.”

Queen Cristina: don’t pry into me, Argentina

December 16, 2007

The Argentinians have a new president: the first lady has been voted into her husband’s shoes. But the combative, collagen-enhanced champion of the underprivileged they call Queen Cristina has some dirty laundry that she would rather not air in public. Christine Toomey investigates

At first it was just a ripple of sound. Old songs of resistance to the military juntas rehearsed by a middle-aged huddle in an expectant crowd. But as election results filtered into the ballroom of a grand Buenos Aires hotel confirming Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as Argentina’s first democratically elected woman president, a wave of nostalgia was unleashed.

The woman many Argentinians refer to as Queen Cristina strode onto the stage holding the hand of the man whose job she was about to take – her husband, Nestor. The supporters of Argentina’s extraordinary power couple linked arms and began to chant songs that would once have signed their death warrant.

For the short duration of Cristina Kirchner’s victory speech, the huddle fell quiet. But when a shower of silver confetti rained down and the first couple sealed their job swap with a kiss, the group hauled aloft banners bearing the initials of once-clandestine student and worker organisations, banned by the military during its 1976-83 reign of state-sponsored terror, known as the “dirty war”.

Queen Cristina simply spread her collagen-enhanced lips into a wider smile, and coyly hugged the waist of the country’s outgoing president. Her husband was more spontaneous. He held out his arms as the banners were thrown onto the stage. One by one he kissed them and tossed them back into the cheering crowd like an ageing pop star. With that, the husband-and-wife team retired to consider how the unprecedented transfer of presidential power between them would proceed.

Who dared to imagine in the dark days of dictatorship, when tens of thousands were seized by the military for suspected left-wing sympathies and “disappeared” – the euphemism coined then for mass murder – that 30 years later the tables would have turned so decisively?

Over the four years of his presidential term, Nestor Kirchner made the prosecution of officers accused of atrocities during the dirty war a central plank of his administration; most had been granted amnesties by previous regimes.

It was this, together with his astonishing turnaround of Argentina’s shattered economy, that saw his popularity soar, to the extent that his wife has been able to take the reins of power virtually unchallenged. Following in the footsteps of her heroine Eva Peron, Cristina has capitalised on her husband’s success by promising to better the lot of the poor: Evita’s so-called “shirtless” ones. It is largely because voters believe she will continue with Nestor’s economic policies that they voted for her.

But as a veteran lawyer and politician in her own right, Cristina, 54, has vowed to continue with the prosecutions of the military, many of whom are due to go on trial in the next 12 months. One of her most emotive campaign clips featured a message of support by one of the country’s most prominent human-rights campaigners, Estela de Carlotto. She is head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who so many years after the fall of the dictatorship are still searching for grandchildren stolen by the military. But some watched the video with a great deal of circumspection. Both Cristina and Nestor, they point out, prefer to draw a veil over much of their time in the coastal city of La Plata, where they met as students during the dictatorship. A hotbed of left-wing activism, La Plata was a place of mass arrests and widespread disappearances in the 1970s and early ’80s. In the aftermath of the military crackdown, the couple fled to the country’s remote Patagonian province of Santa Cruz for refuge. Few blame them for fleeing such a place of slaughter. But what they did in the frozen far south in the years that followed has invited intense criticism.

In the days leading up to the poll, Cristina declared she did not want to be identified with either Eva Peron or Hillary Clinton – a more obvious modern comparison, given that both women are lawyers, and both met and married men who became provincial governors and then presidents. She was being disingenuous. She has ruthlessly exploited the images of both women to help propel herself to power.

During a battle to secure a Senate seat for Buenos Aires several years ago, she said that, were Evita still alive, the wife of Argentina’s former strongman Juan Peron would undoubtedly vote for her. Like her, Cristina has a love of glamour, albeit with a modern twist. Her closest rival in the presidential race, Elisa Carrio, a staunch anti-corruption campaigner, dubbed her the “Botox queen” and derided her penchant for heavy make-up, hair extensions, stilettos and tight-fitting leather jackets. Also like Evita, Cristina favours fist-shaking when she speaks and, on the rare occasions when she ventures into the country’s most desperate barrios, whips up the crowd with similar friend-of-the-poor rhetoric.

Unlike Evita, however, Cristina had a much more privileged upbringing. The eldest daughter of middle-class parents in La Plata, she is remembered by friends as more focused on her studies than student politics at a time when the country’s youth was ablaze with indignation at social injustice. She did become a member of a Peronist youth movement strongly opposed to the military, as did her future husband. But when their friends began to disappear, they abandoned politics and fled to Patagonia.

There are skeletons in the cupboard from the time they spent in Santa Cruz, where Nestor Kirchner was elected governor three times and she was returned to the national Senate twice. Questions still persist about millions of dollars in oil royalties that the federal government paid to the province of Santa Cruz during Nestor’s time as governor, which he had transferred to secret bank accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg, allegedly to protect them from devaluation during the country’s financial collapse of 2001-2. Some of these funds, many believe, are still unaccounted for.

Reminders of these transactions surfaced in the capital when Cristina’s election posters were defaced. After part of her campaign slogan – roughly translated as “We know what’s missing” – opponents had scrawled: “The missing millions from Santa Cruz”.

More recently, Nestor Kirchner’s presidency was marred by a series of corruption scandals.

In July his economic minister, Felisa Miceli, resigned after a bag containing an alleged US$240,000 in cash (Miceli claims it was just $60,000) was discovered in the bathroom of her government office. A month later, a Venezuelan businessman was arrested trying to smuggle $800,000 into the country aboard a jet chartered by Argentina’s state energy company. Two Argentine government officials and three executives from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company were travelling with him. The discovery led opponents of the Kirchners to file criminal charges of money-laundering and bribery against the energy companies involved, amid heavy speculation that Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, who shares much of the Kirchners’ left-wing ideology, was smuggling in funds to boost Cristina’s election campaign. A slew of other alleged corruption scandals involving kickbacks to contractors of state-owned companies are also under investigation.

More troubling for many, however, is the source of the Kirchners’ considerable personal fortune from their activities as young property lawyers in the capital of Santa Cruz, Rio Gallegos, during the dirty war. When the military imposed severe financial penalties on those struggling with debt, many lost their homes to repossession. The Kirchners bought more than a dozen of these properties at knockdown prices, allegedly in association with a financial company backed by members of the military. This became the foundation of their small property empire.

“What they did may have been legal. But in the eyes of most it was morally repugnant. It makes a mockery of their claims to have been champions of social justice in their youth,” says Marcelo Lopez Masia, a journalist who spent years working on a documentary about the Kirchners’ activities only to find that no television network would air it. Media outlets critical of the Kirchners in the past have had big advertisers withdrawing their accounts.

The Kirchners’ contempt for the media is well known. Throughout Nestor’s four years in office he never held press conferences and rarely granted interviews. “Cristina is a very strong character. She is much more cold and distant than her husband. She is a woman people either love or hate. She is not someone anyone is indifferent to,” says one of Argentina’s top political analysts, Joaquin Morales Sola, who was granted a rare interview after her election.

Cristina is fond of pointing out that when her husband was elected president, in 2003, it was she who was the better-known politician. As a senator, her finger-jabbing during congressional sessions was legendary. One of her best-known outbursts came in 2003 when she pounded her Senate desk and demanded the High Court repeal amnesties for officials accused of crimes during the dictatorship. The High Court took heed. The amnesty was annulled and the way cleared for scores of prosecutions to proceed.

But opponents view the Kirchners as opportunists who seized the cause of human rights to improve their popularity, concluding that the couple had shown little interest in such causes until they had presidential ambitions. Andrew Graham-Yooll, longtime editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald and author of a searing personal account of the dirty war, shares this view. After years as an informant for Amnesty International, Graham-Yooll brought his family briefly to the UK following a period of arrest by the military. “I think they latched onto a very good wheeze, which has less to do with human rights and more to do with using history as a form of revenge,” he says. “I am delighted that a woman has been elected president. I think it is a good sock on the nose for the machistas – macho men – of this country. But questions need to be asked about how much money the Kirchners have salted away and how Cristina abused the apparatus of the state to get elected.” The way she used privileges, such as her husband’s presidential jet and helicopter on the campaign trail, incensed other contenders, who also said many of their potential donors were threatened with punitive tax audits.

For those who have battled for decades for justice for the disappearance and murder of their loved ones, the criticism that the Kirchners are now pursuing the military to polish their image is academic. “The fact is they are doing it, and that is all that matters,” says Estela de Carlotto. “Many of the trials have been going very slowly and Cristina has promised to speed them up. She is a woman and we support her because of that.” Cristina is not the first woman to be elected to political power in Latin America. Last year, Chile elected Michelle Bachelet president. She promptly filled half her cabinet with women. Increasingly, voters in the region seem eager for women to replace traditional politicians associated with the problems of the past. Yet throughout her campaign, Cristina assiduously avoided playing the gender card and, unlike some other prominent female politicians, has kept her two children – Maximo, 30, and Florencia, 16 – out of the spotlight. Once elected, she did profess to feel an “immense responsibility for her gender”, calling on her “sisters” to support her in the great task of government. But days later, she disappointed many of the more liberal-minded by stating that she was opposed to abortion and couldn’t believe “anyone could be in favour of it”.

However, it is not the country’s chattering classes who voted her into power. She found little support at the polls in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires and other urban centres. Most of the country’s middle class sneer at her haughty manner and tacky personal style. But since the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001-2, which wiped more than two-thirds off the value of most private savings, the ranks of the middle class have shrunk dramatically. For the country’s poor who propelled Cristina to the presidency, only one thing matters: the state of the economy.

In the rain-soaked central market of La Matanza, a sprawling satellite west of Buenos Aires where some of the capital’s poorest scratch a living, Cristina stepped onto a hastily erected stage in a cream silk suit three days before being elected and spoke about “recovering the dignity” of Argentina. “We want the decisions about our country to be made here, not in the offices of the IMF,” she thundered to rapturous applause. Her speech lasted little more than 10 minutes before she was whisked back to the first couple’s official residence in a presidential helicopter. It was the close of a campaign that many regarded as more like a coronation than an election. But it hit the right buttons with the bedraggled crowd. “At least I have work now, and some hope that my children will be educated,” said Eduardo Rivas. A variety of government job-creation schemes introduced over the past four years under Nestor Kirchner have helped cut unemployment from a 2002 high of 21.5% to around 10.4%.

“We want Cristina to follow in the footsteps of Chavez. We want more big changes in this country,” said Paciano Ocampo, 46, referring to the Venezuelan president’s nationalisation of vast sectors of the economy to fund a range of initiatives to help the poor. In recent years, Chavez has also used his country’s oil wealth to bankroll Argentina to the tune of US$3 billion in government bonds to help the country restructure its debt. It is part of a wider strategy to extend his influence in the region.

Like Venezuela, Argentina has been busy nationalising energy and utility companies, allowing the government to freeze prices and keep inflation low. This, together with favourable financial markets and high prices for Argentina’s agricultural products, has helped fuel an annual economic growth rate of 8% for the past four years and saw Nestor Kirchner’s approval rating soar to above 70%. But the government has been plagued by allegations that it has suppressed true economic figures – crucially that of inflation, officially pegged at around 10%, though widely believed to be twice that.

As the global economy worsens, years of underinvestment in Argentine industry threaten to plunge the country into a new energy crisis. This means the future looks far less rosy for Cristina’s presidency. Some believe this will play into her husband’s hands. “It is clear now why Kirchner appointed his wife candidate. It is clear her period of government will be more difficult than his and he is happy for her to pay the price for this. In some way, he is sacrificing her for his own political ambition,” argues Rosendo Fraga, a veteran observer of the country’s political scene. “Kirchner doesn’t want his wife to fail, because that would bring him down too. But he doesn’t want her to be too successful, either. That will leave the way open for him to be re-elected in four years as the one-time saviour of his country. Cristina and Kirchner are politicians first, husband and wife second. As with all such alliances, politics, power and ambition come before marriage.” Aides point to differences between the pair. Cristina is viewed as more of a negotiator. And where Nestor showed no interest in foreign policy, his wife is expected to devote much of her time to the diplomatic circuit. In the few months of her campaign, she spent more time visiting foreign leaders than travelling around Argentina wooing voters. Detractors derided much of this travel as extended shopping trips. But for a country desperate for foreign investment, such excursions are crucial.

On the trickier matters of international diplomacy, she has remained silent. Little was said when, shortly before the election, Britain confirmed its intention to file a claim to 386,000 square miles of oil- and gas-rich South Atlantic sea bed. Argentina and Chile also claim sovereignty over the area, extending out from British Antarctic Territory.

Under the 1959 Antarctic treaty and subsequent protocols, any attempt at mining and drilling in the area is banned for at least the next 40 years. But shrinking Middle East reserves make exploitation increasingly tempting.

Given the lingering bitterness over the Falklands war, such a muted response from Cristina surprised some, especially since the Kirchners’ traditional power base is in the southernmost tip of the country, closest to Antarctica. Cristina sometimes calls herself La Pinguina – The Lady Penguin – after the inhabitants of those southern reaches. Her husband was similarly nicknamed Penguin because of his southern roots and prominent nose. Analysts say they are now imitating the role-reversal behaviour of emperor penguins, who send the female out to sea in search of food while the male stays back to incubate their egg.

Asked what her husband would do after he slipped the presidential sash over her shoulders, however, Cristina joked that she does not trust him to stay at home. “He’ll do what he has always done,” she says. “He’s a political animal.” Whether this means he will continue to pull the country’s political strings behind the scenes, or if Argentina’s first couple intend to take turns passing the reins of power between them, as emperor penguins do with their chicks, remains to be seen.