Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's ability to make headlines was on full display this week, as Argentina's election campaign again descended into farce.
The former president, seeking to underline the economic growing pains of the Mauricio Macri administration, delivered controversial statements last week about low-cost supermarket brands that prompted everyone from industry leaders to intellectuals – and even the president himself – to chime in with criticism.
"We're seeing brands appear and proliferate, like 'la Pindonga' or 'Cuchuflito,' which nobody has heard of", Fernández de Kirchner said last Thursday during a presentation of her book, Sinceramente ("Sincerely"). Doubling down, she claimed the Macri government was "a non-capitalist regimen in which people cannot buy what they want or the amount of things they want." The comments were somewhat ironic, given the number of high-profile brands that avoided entering the Argentine market under her own administration.
"During our government, the supermarkets were full of top-brand products," Fernández de Kirchner claimed.
In the broader debate about consumption and the declining spending power, the vice-presidential candidate's admittedly tongue-in-cheek statement prompted some to question her commitment to local industry, despite the support her government received from many of the country's most powerful industry leaders during her own time in office. The president, in particular, was eager to bite back.
"Many small producers, which perhaps have brands like 'Cuchuflito,' are very proud of their work" because "they do things properly, with a great deal of professionalism and commitment," said Macri, speaking to reporters on the campaign trail in Santa Fe province on Wednesday.
Governor of Buenos Aires Province María Eugenia Vidal took a similar line, telling the La Nueva Provincia newspaper on Monday that she wanted "small+ and medium-sized businesses in the province to reach the shelves and for Buenos Aires residents to buy products which are not as well as known" as their top-tier counterparts.
Vidal said she was "proud" to see lower-tier local brands on the shelves.
Fernández de Kirchner is running as the vice-presidential candidate to Alberto Fernández, a moderate with strong connections to the country's mainstream media. The former president has taken a back-seat role in campaigning so far, using her memoir to defend her highly questioned political and economic record in heavily stage managed events.
"Cristina lets herself get carried away with the impulse of language," intellectual and author Beatriz Sarlo said Wednesday.
"Those political temperaments that run very deep rarely change from night until day, and less so for an election," she told the Todos Noticias news network.
Fernández de Kirchner "knew she shouldn't say 'Cuchuflito' and 'Pindonga.' She's also offending many of the people who were seated in the White Room [Salon Blanco of Government House] when she was president, who produce the same brands she's ridiculing," Sarlo concluded.
Local industry leaders also questioned the former president's remarks.
Walmart Argentina's Public Relations Chief Juan Pablo Quiroga was among a handful speaking out. He told Perfil her comments were "not an adequate description of reality."
The proliferation of economic brands "is not necessary linked to an economic crisis," he said. "In fact, this new phenomenon of consumption was already happening [before Macri came to power in 2015] and yes, it has been exacerbated in this context."
Quiroga claimed Fernández de Kirchner "wanted to highlight, on one hand, how Argentina is moving towards second-tier brands. But it is not a new phenomenon. In our case, it has been happening progressively for the last five years, and is also happening in economically stable countries."
However, others in the sector defended Fernández de Kirchner.
She "did not want to say it offensively," said Yolanda Durán, the head of the country's so-called 'Chinese supermarket' chamber, the Argentine and Southeast Asian Business Chamber (CEDEAPSA).
Durán warned that such brands "are saving Argentine households".
"These second, third or fourth brands come from small businesses which do the impossible to produce and to products on the shelves," Durán told Perfil, adding that she thought the rebuke from Vidal was politically motivated.
"Vidal got on the bandwagon to gain political points. In any case, we had already began to struggle during Fernández de Kirchner's second presidency," which ended in 2015, Durán added.
The difference in the products, she added, "is a result of publicity. Even if these brands remain less known, there is a 20 to 30 percent difference in price [with top-tier] brands. Publicity does not mean these products are better or worse."
For Walmart, "in-house products represented 12 percent of sales in 2017. Mid last year it had reached 15 percent and it is now 18 percent," Quiroga said.