By John Paul Rathbone (*) - The Financial Times Latin American editor, economist and knowledgeable of Argentina has written a column on the current situation in Argentina and the mystery surrounding the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman
Truth can be stranger than fiction. Ever since Alberto Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment, Argentina — or, more precisely, the government of Cristina Fernandez — has proved the wisdom of the proverb. You could not make this story up.
Three weeks ago, Nisman was preparing for the defining moment of his career. On January 19, the 51-year old prosecutor was set to accuse the president of covering up Iran’s alleged role in Argentina’s worst terrorist attack: a 1994 bombing that killed 85 people. A few hours before the congressional hearing, Nisman’s mother found her son lying in a pool of blood.
At first, Ms Fernandez suggested Nisman’s death was suicide. Then, in a rambling Facebook post, she suggested it was a murder, at the hand of rogue spies wanting to discredit her.
“In Argentina . . . every day you have to explain the obvious and the simple,” she wrote wearily, adding: “in Argentina, like everywhere, not everything is what it seems”. Few leaders can match such sarcasm.
Conspiracy theories are thickening. Officials blame “dark interests”. Yet most of the conspiracy theories are fed by the state itself.
On Sunday, Clarin, a newspaper that has clashed repeatedly with the president, reported that Nisman had also drafted a warrant for her arrest. The government rubbished the report and, on television, the cabinet chief ripped it up. The next day, it transpired the article was true: a draft of the warrant was found in Nisman’s garbage.
Argentines remain understandably suspicious of their intelligence services, which are little changed since the military dictatorship ended in 1983. That means Ms Fernandez’s idea that rogue spies planned Nisman’s death is not entirely implausible. Yet that does not make Ms Fernandez a credible reformer of Argentina’s spy services, the mantle she claimed in an hour-long television broadcast on January 26.
After all, long experience has also made Argentines wary of government lies — over almost everything, but particularly corruption and inflation. The government, acting as if it is holier than Mother Teresa, has always batted away such allegations.
But now, trapped by its own mistakes, it can no longer disguise reality with words. Nobody suggests Ms Fernandez orchestrated Nisman’s death. But her government’s actions suggest that it is scared and perhaps hiding something too. Ms Fernandez’s behavior has not helped. She is yet to offer condolences to Nisman’s family. On Wednesday, on a trip to China, she also mocked her hosts' accents by swapping l’s for r’s, remarking that humor was the best reaction to slurs.
Now the spotlight is on Argentina’s judiciary. It is slow, inefficient, perhaps corrupt, but still enjoys silos of competence and legal expertise. Indeed, its independence is one reason why Argentina is not as messed up as Venezuela, despite Ms Fernandez’s best efforts to control it (she is a lawyer).
Two years ago, for example, Ms Fernandez proposed a reform that would have seen the panel that chooses Argentine judges selected by popular vote. This would supposedly “democratize” the legal system. In reality, it would have put it in thrall to ruling politicians. In the end, the courts threw out the initiative, as they did a government-sponsored accord with Tehran over the 1994 terrorist attack.
One does not have to look far for reasons why Ms Fernández might want to stack the judiciary in her favor. Her personal wealth has grown exponentially since she and her deceased husband came to power in 2003. In 2013, according to the latest filing, her wealth grew 15% to 6.6m dollars. But her presidency ends this year, she cannot seek re-election and, stripped of immunity, that could leave her legally exposed. Ms Fernández’s actions give critics further cause for suspicion.
One solution now might be to bring in a credible team of independent experts to investigate Nisman’s death — and the 1994 bombing too. Mexico brought in Argentine forensic experts to investigate the death of 43 students this year. Similarly, a UN-backed commission investigated the mysterious death of a Guatemalan judge in 2009. Buenos Aires has not made a similar move.
The result is a murder conspiracy that nobody believes will ever be properly solved because of the complicity of so many sectors: the state, the presidency, the judiciary, Congress and the intelligence services. The story exemplifies that notion that Argentina, 32 years after the demise of the military junta, remains at best a flawed democracy and at worst a rogue state.
(*) John Paul Rathbone was born in New York and raised in England. Currently the Financial Times‘ Latin American editor, and a former editor of the FT’s prestigious “Lex” column, he is a graduate of Oxford and Columbia Universities, and has worked as an economist at the World Bank, and as a journalist. His articles have appeared in many publications including The Wall Street Journal, Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, Colombia’s El Espectador, and Esquire magazine, where he was business columnist from 2002-2003. He lives in London and is author of The Sugar King of Havana;The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon.