BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's president cracked jokes and sounded optimistic Wednesday after her thyroid cancer diagnosis was announced, but she's clearly struggling with the need to delegate power while she recovers from next week's surgery.
Cristina Fernandez's thyroid removal operation, scheduled for Jan. 4, is expected to be as routine as cancer surgery can be. Doctors predict a speedy recovery, since papillary thyroid carcinoma detected before it spreads is highly curable without chemotherapy.
Still, the idea of leaving her vice president in charge for 20 days appears to pose a daunting challenge for Fernandez, who has never been comfortable delegating.
She praised her constitutional successor, former Economy Minister Amado Boudou, for sharing her political ideas, but jokingly warned him to "be careful what you do" as interim president and made clear that she'll be keeping a close watch on things while recovering at her home in Patagonia.
"The truth is that I — everything is too much. You can't be in charge of everything," Fernandez acknowledged. "The body can't handle it."
Indeed. Despite the doctors' assurances, simply combining the words "cancer" and "Cristina" had Argentines worried about the mortality of a leader who has been virtually alone at the top. Even before the death of her husband, Nestor Kirchner, of a heart attack last year, she had grown accustomed to ruling through emergency decrees after consulting only a small circle of loyal advisers.
"It affects me deeply," said Cecilia Maldonado, a young office worker in downtown Buenos Aires. "Because if you begin to think about her having to leave the presidency, or something happening to her ... there isn't anybody who could replace all the energy that she's put into raising up this government."
Fernandez and Kirchner were Argentina's ultimate power couple, whose fervent supporters say they've done more for the country during their combined two terms in office than anyone since legendary strongman Juan Domingo Peron and his wife, Evita, used the country's post-World War II riches to move a generation of working people into the middle class.
Fernandez, 58, dispelled doubts about her survival skills after Kirchner's death and won re-election by a landslide in October, in part because voters saw the grieving widow as indomitable — the only one capable of containing Argentina's social pressures and keeping on track the economy, which grew at more than 9 percent this year.
Argentina has come back strong from its disastrous devaluation and debt default a decade ago, reducing poverty, unemployment and the wealth gap, and directing billions of dollars in revenue to the poor through social programs. But many worry that such achievements could disappear when Fernandez leaves office.
"Just when it seems like we're getting a little better," complained Maldonado, reacting to the news. "Ten years ago, I lived through 2001, and I really suffered. ... Only now can you see things improving, and plan for the future."
The cancer diagnosis worries Argentines precisely "because it's a one-person government ... where only the president makes decisions," said Mariel Fornoni, director of the Management & Fit consulting firm. "That's why there's so much doubt about what might happen."
Still, Fornoni said, it's clear that the president's planned medical leave is irrelevant, and that no real decision will be made without consulting her.
Fernandez spoke of her cancer diagnosis as she announced new revenue transfers to provincial governments, seeking to project an image of normalcy. Several of the gathered governors and ministers who gave her an extended standing ovation said they were relieved to see her in good spirits and fully in command.
"She seems optimistic, making jokes. Clearly she's not going to let anything slow her down these next four years," said Jorge Capitanich, governor of the northern state of Chaco.
Just behind her during her speech was an architect's rendering of an image of Evita Peron that now towers over the widest avenue in Buenos Aires. Comparisons weren't lost on Argentines, who learn as children that Evita died in 1951 because she neglected her own health while caring for the poor, letting uterine cancer spread until it was incurable.
The president's doctors said Fernandez was told of her cancer on Dec. 22, the same day that her newly inaugurated Senate majority, racing to approve new laws ahead of its summer recess, significantly increased several executive powers.
And while Fernandez talked of delegating on Wednesday, she reversed herself practically in the same breath.
"We're going to keep going with the same energy we've always had. We need to face things as we've always done, taking charge of everything that's our responsibility, and everything else as well," she said. "I'm going to keep working the same as always, for Argentina, for nothing other than her, and for all the Argentines."
Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.