Using Nisman’s Death for Political Purposes

As I explained in a previous Telesur column, the death of Alberto Nisman –the prosecutor who had accused Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner of orchestrating a cover-up in the investigation of Iran over the 1994 bombing of AMIA, the main Jewish community center of Argentina (an accusation that was dismissed in court for being baseless)– was frantically exploited for political purposes. In the past few weeks the situation got even worse. The proliferation of denounces of all types and false information is so intense, that it is getting more and more difficult to distinguish between facts and fantasy (particularly for foreign readers, exposed almost exclusively to misinformed journalists or to biased domestic voices). The dispute over the meaning of a recent demonstration is a good example of this toxic manipulation of the information.

On 18 February a massive “silent” demonstration took place in the streets of Buenos Aires. It was organized by five federal prosecutors, with the alleged purpose of paying homage to their dead colleague, portrayed as a justice hero (an image that, as I explained in my column, is totally misleading). Although it was depicted as a non-political meeting, in the previous days the five prosecutors denounced in the media that the independence of the Judicial Power was at stake, threatened by the government’s unduly attacks, the “murder” of Nisman being one of them (his death is often referred to as an assassination in the press, even if the investigation over the circumstances of Nisman’s death has not concluded yet). Thus, the appeal was presented as an opportunity to defend the Republic in danger, which of course gave the demonstration an obviously anti-government tone. In fact, most of the leaders of the opposition invited the people to march and joined the big crowd themselves. According to the city police of Buenos Aires (created and controlled by the mayor Mauricio Macri, who has good chances to become the next president), over 400.000 people marched, a number that was reproduced by local and international newspapers. The media portrayed the demonstration as a remarkable display of republicanism and democratic concern carried out by citizens of all types (except for the kirchnerists, of course).

The government reacted bitterly. To begin with, the Federal Police reported that the “silent march” was only attended by 50.000 people. Pro-Kirchner public intellectuals and politicians denounced that the demonstration was part of an attempt of a “soft coup d’état” (golpe blando), of the kind that ousted Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo through an impeachment in 2012 (some of them had already tried to present Nisman’s alleged “murder” as a coup d’état attempt orchestrated by the US). Cristina Kirchner herself wrote a text denouncing that the demonstration represented “the baptism of fire of the Judicial Party”, meaning that the Judicial Power was acting as a political party and therefore damaging the division of power with a total disregard for democracy and the sovereignty of the people.  A congressman of her party added that the President of the Supreme Court is the “general” behind the coup attempt.

In turn, the opposition replied that the accusations of the government were not only absurd, but were yet another proof of the anti-democratic nature of kirchnerism, which cannot stand dissent, civic participation and the independence of the judiciary. Leaders of the opposition explained that, by calling the pacific demonstrators “golpistas” (putschists), kirchnerists were acting in an intolerant and authoritarian way, just like the chavistas in Venezuela. Truly republican people are “pluralist” and don’t call legitimate adversaries “golpistas”, they say. However, this argument did not prevent some of the same leaders from saying that Cristina Kirchner was the real “golpista”. As Elisa Carrió denounced several times on TV these days, the president is preparing a “self-coup” (autogolpe) of the kind that Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori carried out in 1992, when he dissolved the Congress. Carrió even claimed that she had the precise information as to which day this coup was going to take place: 1 March 2015. This rather gloomy prediction does not necessarily sound an exaggeration for everyone, in a context in which the main newspaper is also suggesting that Cristina Kirchner will not allow the next president to take office, while leading public intellectuals insinuate that her rank-and-file are getting hold of weapons, or compare this situation with the rise of Benito Mussolini to power, or announce the advent of the reign of terror.

So what on earth is going on in Argentina? 400.000 demonstrators or 50.000? Magistrates in danger because of the government, or government in danger because of the “judicial party”? Soft coup of the opposition, or self-coup of Cristina Kirchner? Please bear with me while I try and examine the facts behind all of these bombastic statements and accusations.

18F, The Demonstration

Let’s start by the easiest part: How many demonstrators in the “silent march”? By all accounts, 400.000 is an absurd claim. It is simply impossible, physically impossible, to pack that number in the space used by the march. In addition, on that rainy day most people were carrying umbrellas, which means that each person was using much more space than in a regular demonstration. On the other hand, 50.000 also sounds unrealistic and biased. The most serious calculations have counted between 70.000 and 90.000 people. A huge number indeed, which would have been bigger had not rained as it did.

So who were the demonstrators? Despite depictions of the media, the crowd was not representative of the Argentine people minus the kirchnerists. Socially speaking, independent reports agree in that it was mostly middle and higher-middle class, and that the overwhelming majority were middle-aged or elderly people. According to one survey, most of them were planning to vote for Macri in the coming elections. It is not true either that only the kirchnerists were absent that day. Several organizations and personalities of all types issued statements explaining their reasons not to go. It is worth noting that, being a tribute to the prosecutor in charge of the AMIA investigation for ten years, the families of the victims of that bombing decided not to attend. There are thee associations that represent those families, APEMIA, Memoria Activa and 18J. While only the latter can be considered supporter of the current government, all three of them refused to participate. Memoria Activa issued a strong statement criticizing Nisman and pointing out that two of the five prosecutors who had organized the march were personally involved in judicial maneuvers to protect people implicated in the covering up of the AMIA massacre. 18J and APEMIA agreed on that (the latter also added that the demonstration had electoral purposes). All of the left wing political parties and organizations decided not to attend for similar reasons. Other independent organizations, renowned human rights campaigners –such as Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel– and jurists –like Luis Moreno Ocampo–  publicly expressed similar views, and the same applies to a large group of judges and prosecutors. It was not a march of “the people”, as the TV reported, but of some kinds of people.

It would be redundant to say that, despite the claims of its organizers, it was a political demonstration. In a broad definition, all demonstrations are, especially this one, endorsed by the leaders of the opposition. But this one was political in a more literal sense. The small group of prosecutors who organized the march has close political links with either Mauricio Macri or Sergio Massa (two of the favorite candidates for the next presidential elections). In addition, although it was presented as a silent homage to Nisman, the leaders of the opposition were indeed very vocal about their participation in the march in the TV studios, immediately after it finished. It is not abusive to consider it a political demonstration of the opposition (capitalized by the right wing in particular), rather than a purely “civic” gathering. In that, the government is not wrong.

Soft coup/self-coup?

That does not mean, of course, that the marchers are “golpistas” or that the demonstration has anything to do with a coup d’état. “Normal” political protests are aimed at influencing or changing State policies, at backing or criticizing governments. Even protests aimed at forcing the resignation of an unpopular president –like the ones we had in Argentina in 2001– are a legitimate expression of democratic life. By depicting this demonstration as a coup attempt, the government is clearly exaggerating (to put it mildly).

It is true that the day after the march one of the main spokespersons of Mauricio Macri’s party said that they would “explore the possibility of an impeachment”. Macri knows that avenue quite well, as he only succeeded in getting elected as a mayor of Buenos Aires after his legislators and allies in the city council impeached his predecessor, Anibal Ibarra. Ibarra, who had defeated Macri in the previous two elections, was accused of not doing enough to prevent a fire at a music venue in 2004, which caused 194 victims. The courts later ruled that he had had no responsibility and, ironically, the legendary prosecutor of the last military Junta, Julio Strassera –who later became a fierce enemy of Cristina Kirchner– denounced then that the impeachment of Ibarra was a coup d’état in the city. I personally have no doubts that, if Macri had a majority in Congress now, he would go for the impeachment. After all, the reasons provided by Nisman’s accusation are far more relevant than those presented against Ibarra in 2006. Macri did not wait until the judicial trial ended then, there is no reason to believe that he would restrain himself now.

But the fact is that neither Macri nor the opposition altogether has a majority in the Congress, which is controlled by the government’s congressmen. Cristina Kirchner also retains a good deal of popular support and the capacity to mobilize it on the streets should it be necessary. Even if some oppositional leaders dreamt of a “soft coup”, the fact is that nothing like that is feasible at the moment.

Is depicting adversaries as “golpistas” a sign of intolerance and of lack of democratic values? The opposition claims it is, and there is at least a grain of truth in that. However, that kind of intolerance seems to be widely distributed in Argentina’s political landscape. Ricardo Alfonsín, the son of Raúl –today considered the “father of democracy” in Argentina and the quintessential example of republicanism– went viral in social networks when he claimed that his father always respected his adversaries and never accused them like that, even when facing a fierce opposition. Unfortunately, that is totally false: Raúl Alfonsín was actually quite keen on denouncing forthcoming coups. He did it several times when he was in office, including in 1988 while trying to counter the “menace” of a teachers’ strike; in 2004 he even warned the population abouta coup against Néstor Kirchner orchestrated by the corporations.

And what to say about Elisa Carrió’s announcements of a coming “self-coup”? That seems to be quite simply a random accusation without a single piece of evidence to support it (her fatal date arrived and yet absolutely nothing happened). In fact, Carrió has made a whole political career by denouncing hidden conspiracies and forthcoming calamities of all types. I cannot remember a single one ever materializing to prove her right. With that record in mind, it is quite remarkable that the TV and the press continue to give her endless amounts of space again and again for her wild denunciations (a sign that Argentinean media are not that pluralist either when it comes to governments they dislike). The same can be said about public intellectuals who use words such as “fascism” or “terror” to describe the current situation (or speculate about weapons being gathered by kirchnerists without a single piece of evidence). It does not take much knowledge of history to realize that, under a situation of terror and fascism, you don’t get to call the government “terrorist” and “fascist” on a daily basis (not to mention to illustrate covers of prominent political magazines with images of the president having an orgasm). There is a lot to be said about Cristina Kirchner’s rhetorical style and the way she uses public funds to benefit newspapers and magazines that support her. But there have been no threats to the freedom of speech or to basic political rights under her administration. Not a single journalist was sued or imprisoned and no leaders of other parties were ever arrested by order of the government (something that did happen, for instance, under Alfonsín).

A “Judicial Party”?

The current state of the Judicial Power also suggests that the image of an authoritarian regime smashing it may be exaggerated. The government is not even close to having control of the Supreme Court, which remains to a great extent independent, sometimes making decisions that the opposition dislikes, sometimes the other way around. Moreover, Cristina Kirchner is far from controlling the myriad or judges and prosecutors of the country, who challenge her power on a daily basis. For example, the anti-monopoly law for audiovisual media that she proposed and the Congress passed by a large multi-party majority in 2009, is still blocked due to continuous stays decided by diverse judges, both federal and local, even after the Supreme Court ruled that it was perfectly constitutional. In these years, magistrates have constantly interfered in decisions that correspond to the Executive (including something as trivial as moving a statue from the park next to the governmental palace). Other endless stays in effect since 2003 (yes, 2003) have prevented the State from collecting taxes from La Nación and other newspapers. In addition, some of Cristina Kirchner’s main officers, including her vice-president, are currently under trial on charges of corruption and face real chances of going to jail. It is true that denounces of corruption against Cristina Kirchner herself are advancing in court at a suspiciously slow pace. The government does have some “docile” magistrates indeed, and has publicly bullied others (something that the opposition and the press also do with well-reputed judges when they are not docile to them). But it does not look like the Judicial Power is languishing under the government threats. Quite the opposite.

Is there a “Judicial Party” hindering democracy then? Again in this case, the government is exaggerating. The expression coined by the president comes from another one, very well known in Argentina: “Military Party”. In our history, it refers to the fact that, from 1930 to 1983 the military played the role of the political party of the élites, enabling the higher classes to govern (or condition civilian governments) without having to run in elections. But the role of the judiciary in Argentina today is not comparable to that. It is true that the Judicial Power, in Argentina and elsewhere, has been carefully designed to protect the interests of the wealthy minoritieswhenever they are threatened by democracy. It has certainly played that role in Argentina in the past years. But beyond that general nature, the magistrates are not acting as a cohesive anti-government political group. Some do, but quite a few of them have also organized in a pro-government platform that promotes the democratization of the judiciary.

All things considered, then, there is neither authoritarian control nor a “Judicial Party”. The Argentinean judicial landscape can be better described in the words of leading journalist Santiago O’Donnell. Both the government and corporations “compete at co-opting federal judges”. They sometimes succeed, but a good deal of the magistrates is independent and honest people doing their job. Unfortunately, the latter are often invisible among the corrupt or partisan ones, who are more likely to be portrayed as “heroes” by the contentious Argentinean media.

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