A Most Argentine Affair?
Image source: Flickr:jmalievi
‘I have no evidence’, wrote Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, ‘but no doubts either’. So the president of Argentina announced on her website and Facebook her conviction that Alberto Nisman, special prosecutor for the AMIA bomb attack of 1994, had not committed suicide on Sunday 19th January but had been the victim of a political murder plot. Others had taken less time to reach the same conclusion – and to decide on the responsible party: 24 hours after journalist Damian Pachter (who has now fled to Israel, claiming that he fears for his safety) broke the story that the lawyer had been found dead, the hashtag #CFKAsesina (‘CFKMurderer’) had appeared in more than 50, 000 tweets, distressed citizens drawing a direct line between the increasingly unpopular Peronist president and the corpse. The case has since evolved into a groundswell of public conspiracy theories that variously implicate Nisman, Iran, the government and rogue SIDE (Secretariat for State Intelligence) agents in one or another plot apparently designed to besmirch the government, unseat the president or perhaps forever silence a repository of powerful truths. As this article describes, there are few publicly known facts among the mass of unknowns – and conspiracy theories seem to be standing in for this deficit of verifiable information.
The quick emergence of this dense concatenation of often mutually exclusive conspiracy theories is, to be sure, disorienting. But it also has a certain familiarity in Argentina. Conspiracies and conspiracy theories have long occupied a central place in Argentine political culture, including in recent democratic periods. Amid waves of immigration, populism, nationalist sentiment and senses of foreign betrayal, ‘foreign’ others have often occupied the conspiratorial role in these conspiracy narratives. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and the Arab world mushroomed, Jews were tainted in Argentina with the conspiratorial labels of communism and imperialism. When the military regime (1976 – 1983) sought to frame so-called Argentine leftist ‘subversives’ as conspirators, it described them simply as ‘not Argentine’. Many sources described the Falklands/Malvinas War was an Anglo-Chilean conspiracy. Other stories posit neighbouring Bolivians and Paraguayans in less than neighbourly terms. In the 1989 presidential election, Carlos Menem, who would be voted in as Peronist president that year, accused the opposing Radical party of using ‘imported U.S. techniques’ to win votes through covert means. During the financial crisis of the early 2000s, citizens and politicians of varying partisan stripes accused the international financial institutions not only of involvement in financial mismanagement but deliberate neo-imperialistic plotting to further depreciate the Argentine economy.
Theories of anti-national conspiracy, including government-perpetuated ones, are often still linked to shady foreigners and foreign inspiration. Fernández has recently warned against certain groups of foreign others and their apparently anti-government and anti-Argentine agendum. ‘If something should happen to me’, the president instructed in a televised speech a few months ago, ‘don’t look to the Middle East, look to the North’. On her website, Fernández laments that activists in her Front for Victory faction of the Peronist party lack an international dimension to their education. She encourages courses in international history and politics because those who ‘do not know how events have come to happen’ are ‘led around by the nose’ (an Argentine idiom meant to conjure the image of a cow or bull surrendering its will to a gaucho, who leads the animal in whichever direction he chooses by tugging on its nose ring). In the context of a deeply antagonistic relationship with Clarín, the main media group in Argentina, and other elements of the press, Fernández alludes to ‘social networks’ and ‘mass media’ as playing the cattle-herder role, hinting that they prioritize foreign interests over domestic ones; one more ‘vendepatrias’ (national sell-out) in a line of many, the intimation seems to be.
In the Nisman case, Fernández has made clear her belief both that conspiratorial forces were at work and that the target was her government (and by extension, the nation): ‘The true operation against the Government was the Prosecutor’s death after accusing the President, the Foreign Minister, and the Secretary General of La Cámpora of being accessories to the Iranians accused of the terrorist bombing of AMIA’ (this literal translation appears on the presidential website). An interesting dimension of her SIDE accusation, though, is its downplaying of foreign involvement. That trope remains readily available, even with the finger pointed at the Secretariat: Juan Perón set up SIDE in 1946, and its agents apparently played a role in helping to bring Nazis to Argentina under his watch; and the organisation is widely believed to have been linked over the years to the darker sides of the CIA. The current administration, and its adversaries, is well practiced, moreover, in politically mobilising history. Yet, the ‘official’ story has not drawn on these historic foreign links (unsurprisingly, when it comes to the murkier aspects of the Peronist past) or hinted at contemporary ones. The main figure in this story of betrayal, Jaime Stiu(s)so (among his many names), head of SIDE until December 2014 when he was ousted by Fernández, is considered one of the most feared men in Argentina, past or present. SIDE must be dissolved, the president has said, because this national agency ‘has not acted in the best interests of the nation’. This time, if there is an accusation that the apparent enemy within is foreign or foreign-influenced, it remains latent – or at least dependent on the vagaries of historical memory.
The difficulty with attempting to evaluate the reasons behind this ‘domestic’ narrative is that, without evidence, we risk also veering into the territory of conspiracy theorizing (for some reasons why conspiracy theories are problematic, not least in democratic contexts, see this post by Alfred); we may seek to find causality where there is none. The head of state, moreover, might reasonably be party to information not currently in public circulation. Rather than hypothesizing, then, about this seeming diversion from historical precedent, I’ll only mention that even if ornery former SIDE agents were to have occupied a central role in a plot, conspiracies take a group; there’d still be plenty of room for other co-conspirators, and there are varied international leads still to be investigated. Amid these unknowns, we can at least say that the official narrative of a very ‘Argentine’ plot perhaps speaks to the improbability of Argentina seeking ‘international help’ in the investigation, as the journalist Andres Oppenheimer has proposed would bring credibility to the case; the current official story frames the scandal as one of domestic housekeeping (SIDE, incidentally, is known colloquially as ‘La Casa’, ‘The House’) for Argentina to clean up free of foreign involvement.
If this official version of events is populated principally with Argentinean suspects, others, in Argentina and outside, are recounting the whole affair as distinctly Argentine. In one example, a New Yorker article entitled ‘A Very Argentinian Mystery’, Jon Lee Anderson writes that ‘Argentina’s scandals, at the highest levels of government, play out somewhat differently than those of other countries— and certainly those of most modern democracies’. He describes a ‘theatrical mix of Greek tragedy and opera buffa to them’, likening these scandals to ‘episodes of some long-running telenovela’. I’m not convinced by the helpfulness of so vigorous a narrative of Argentine difference (more on the uses of theatrical metaphors for real-life conspiratorial scenarios another time). To be sure, Argentina has its own complex, historically rooted political culture in which current events must be understood. Yet, plentiful political scandals with fatal outcomes in other countries, including some ‘modern democracies’ (of one form or another), have been equally astonishing in form – and subsequent narration. What about the murders of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera (Guatemala, 1998), presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio (Mexico, 1988) and Alexander Litvinenko (Russia, died in England in 2006)? Rather than exoticizing Argentina, then, perhaps we would do better to think about some of the common factors that unify democracies, and other political contexts, in which political assassinations and deaths mired in political mystery have tended to occur, remain shrouded in secrecy and become the subject of dizzying conspiracy theories. Questionable judicial independence would probably play a role. The interlinked trio of weak political institutions, swollen levels of citizen distrust in politicians and institutions and a lack of political transparency may also feature high on the list.