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The Dead Have The Lead In Argentina's Elections

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At a recent rally, hundreds of young supporters of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez chanted that her late husband is not dead. In a way, he's not. Celebrated for guiding Argentina out of economic calamity a decade ago, former President Nestor Kirchner is as present in his wife's re-election campaign as she is.

In Argentina, Fernandez has surged in the polls, riding a wave of sympathy since the 2010 death of her predecessor. She's now running for re-election Sunday, and Kirchner's image is everywhere: His likeness is on banners, and his policies are center stage in political rallies. Pundits say it's all part of a broader Latin American tendency to mythologize dead leaders.

Andres Oppenheimer, an Argentine journalist, has written a book about how the region elevates its fallen heroes and remains obsessed with past glories. Enough With the History posits that the region is too focused on the past, and Oppenheimer says Argentina may be the country most wrapped up in its dead leaders.

"There's nothing Argentines like more than a dead hero. There is a long tradition of necrophilia. Look at Evita Peron — look at Peron himself. There is a sort of longing for the dead," he says.

The 1950s-era populist strongman Juan Peron and his famous wife are celebrated here for looking out for the poor. Decades later, they still have a powerful hold on Argentines.

Juan Peron, in fact, was even exhumed in a 2006 ceremony that paralyzed the country.

That kind of thing doesn't just happen in Argentina. In Venezuela in 2010, Hugo Chavez ordered that the country's independence hero, Simon Bolivar, be dug up. Venezuelans then watched the exhumation on state TV as the national anthem played.

In recent years, dead heroes have also been unearthed in Mexico and in Chile. Oppenheimer says there have even been heated squabbles in countries like Ecuador and El Salvador over the resting places of those countries' forefathers.

"Unfortunately, most Latin American countries are too focused on the past and too little focused on the future," he says, "and that distracts them from the urgent task of looking into the big issues of the future."

The myth-making, though, often has a purpose — a political one, says journalist Hector Barabino. He says you can't run against a myth, and that's what Kirchner has become.

So now Fernandez invokes her late husband in every speech, Barabino notes. Indeed, in her final campaign rally on Wednesday she talked about him — what would have happened to Argentina had he not been president from 2003 to 2007.

She also reminded the fervent crowd that she's following his policies to the letter.

Veronica Marino, 38, says she reveres Peron and Kirchner, and she now sees greatness in Fernandez. Kirchner and now Fernandez, Marino says, were the leaders who best knew what the Argentine people wanted.

Marino adds that no one else has so well embodied the policies of Peron and Evita.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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