September 26, 2012 / 9:00 PM / 7 years ago

U.S. students grill Argentina President Fernandez in Washington

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Georgetown University students in Washington D.C. got to do something on Wednesday that Argentine journalists rarely get to do: grill visiting President Cristina Fernandez on issues like her country’s discredited inflation statistics.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (R) shakes hands with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 25, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Fernandez is a gifted public speaker but she seldom holds news conferences or gives interviews at home. Her drive to crack down on media monopolies has aggravated a long-running feud with top Argentine conglomerate Grupo Clarin.

One student asked Fernandez why he and fellow Latin American studies classmates were allowed to ask her questions when Argentine journalists rarely get the chance.

“In Argentina, when a reporter doesn’t like the answer, he starts to yell and make a fuss,” Fernandez said, appearing surprised by the question. “They scream, get angry, they throw things, one broke a door in the press room once.”

“In the United states, the journalist asks a question and the president responds and that’s it,” Fernandez said in the meeting, which was carried on Argentine television. The last time she gave a press conference was just after her landslide re-election in October 2011.

The next student to quiz the 59-year-old Peronist leader raised an even more controversial subject; the country’s discredited inflation data.

The student from Texas asked, in beginner’s Spanish, for her reaction to the International Monetary Fund’s decision to warn the government to clean up its statistics.

Fernandez has long been criticized for saying inflation is about half of that estimated by private economists, who clock annual consumer price rises at more than 20 percent.

“The IMF is absolutely against Argentina,” said Fernandez, who then asked the students if they know what U.S. inflation is.

Told that it was somewhere around 2 percent (the official annual rate was 1.7 percent in August), she scoffed: “Do you really think inflation is 2 percent per year in your country? Really, guys?”

Wall Street says Argentina massages its data in part to save money on its inflation-indexed debt by underreporting price increases. The government has denied any data manipulation.

Reporting By Hugh Bronstein; Editing by David Gregorio

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