- - Wednesday, January 28, 2015

BUENOS AIRES — In the wee hours of Jan. 19, Cristina Fernandez took a call from her security minister about an “incident” at the home of the prosecutor who days before had accused the Argentine president of covering up a terrorist bombing.

“There is blood running below the [bathroom] door, and you can see a finger,” Maria Cecilia Rodriguez told her, Ms. Fernandez said. “At first I thought it was a midnight joke,” the president added. But hours later “they confirmed that it was the body of prosecutor [Alberto] Nisman.”

Mr. Nisman’s death rocked the country, but what has happened in the 10 days since has also put the spotlight squarely on Ms. Fernandez, who, with her late husband Nestor Kirchner, has held executive power in the Casa Rosada for almost a dozen years. Her unsteady handling of the crisis — from supporting and then rejecting the idea of suicide in Facebook postings as the formal investigation had barely begun to her abrupt call to disband Argentina’s intelligence service — further complicates her final year in office, already marked by economic woes and tenacious corruption allegations.

Political opponents of the populist president are comparing her to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And her behavior in the Nisman saga cements the image of a tone-deaf president, editor Eduardo van der Kooy wrote in a Wednesday column in Clarin, Argentina’s largest newspaper and one of Ms. Fernandez’s least favorite media outlets.

“Given an incident of the magnitude of Prosecutor Nisman’s death, is it [normal] that she entertained herself with strange Facebook speculations?” Mr. van der Kooy wondered.

And many see her call Monday to disband the country’s Intelligence Secretariat less as an attempt to rein in the spy service than as a bid to protect herself and her allies from embarrassing revelations in the Nisman probe. On the day his body was found at his home with a gunshot wound in the forehead, the prosecutor was preparing to go public with new details from his probe of the Fernandez government’s secret dealings with Iran to conceal what happened in the 1994 terrorist bombing on a Buenos Aires Jewish community center that killed 85 people.

This week’s moves have only multiplied the questions surrounding Ms. Fernandez‘ ability to manage the crisis and limit the damage to her political standing.

Using her typical detail-rich, colloquial style, Ms. Fernandez recounted the story in a televised address Monday night. And though one commentator wondered how the president could be “so cold and indifferent” in the face of Mr. Nisman’s mysterious death — which, for more than a week, has captivated the national attention — her performance was trademark Fernandez.

The 61-year-old head of state, who in December leaves office after two full terms, likes to pepper her speeches with a mix of anecdotes, slights and insinuations. She hardly ever talks to reporters, once telling a Georgetown University student that “rulers are not there to answer” questions.

Confrontational rhetoric

Her abrasive, confrontational rhetoric has found frequent targets both at home and abroad. When Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos dared criticize Ms. Fernandez’s nationalization of the Argentine oil giant YPF in 2012, for example, she noted “that bold guy” had almost ruined her breakfast. And in the wake of a supposed Islamic State threat she said she had received last year, she pointed fingers at the United States.

“If something happens to me, nobody look to the Middle East; look to the north,” Ms. Fernandez said.

Argentines, though largely accustomed to the escapades of the president whom they re-elected in a landslide in 2011, seem increasingly bewildered by her apparent inability to switch modes even in times of crisis. After a 2012 train disaster blamed on government corruption, Ms. Fernandez infuriated victims’ families when she compared the deaths of 51 commuters to that of Kirchner, her husband and predecessor, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 2010.

A day after Mr. Nisman was found dead, Ms. Fernandez seemed to suggest that the prosecutor had killed himself, noting that “suicide provokes astonishment [and] questions.” Forty-eight hours later, she said that she had “no proof but no doubts either” that the prosecutor’s “suicide was not a suicide.”

In the view of opposition lawmaker Patricia Bullrich, the president’s meddling in the investigation is emblematic of her attempts to dilute judicial independence. Ms. Bullrich presides over the Chamber of Deputies Criminal Law Committee, before which Mr. Nisman was to detail his allegations against Ms. Fernandez on Jan. 19: He had accused her of trying to cover up Iran’s alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in order to secure a trade deal with Tehran.

“She presents herself as a police investigator and victim,” Ms. Bullrich said. “It’s like Putin’s Russia.”

On Monday Ms. Fernandez doubled down on her commentary, using her televised address to question the role of an employee who lent Mr. Nisman the handgun that eventually killed the prosecutor. She detailed Diego Lagomarsino’s ties to the Clarin media conglomerate and disclosed that her Interior Ministry had denied him a new passport.

Even the prosecutor investigating Mr. Nisman’s death, who has been careful to steer away from controversy in the explosive case, found it hard to hide her irritation at the president’s recent remarks.

“She is free to think, like any citizen. She can think that it was a suicide a forced suicide or a homicide,” Viviana Fein said on Cronica TV. “[But] I will stick to my investigation.”

Ms. Fernandez and her husband began their careers in the southern province of Santa Cruz, where Kirchner served as governor before winning the Casa Rosada — Argentina’s White House — in 2003. A lawyer and longtime member of Congress, Ms. Fernandez succeeded him in 2007. The power couple sought to alternate in the office to circumvent constitutional limits on consecutive terms.

Their plan was cut short by Kirchner’s unexpected death in 2010, a year before Ms. Fernandez was re-elected with a record 54 percent of votes. For her second term, the president ditched her running mate, Julio Cobos, with whom she had had a falling out, just four months after their 2011 victory.

Today, Mr. Cobos said the president is “more and more withdrawn,” and her statements on the Nisman case are “inexplicable.” Her style has weakened Argentina’s institutions and democracy, the former vice president told The Washington Times.

His replacement, current Vice President Amado Boudou, has been indicted on corruption charges. On his fate, meanwhile, Ms. Fernandez has remained uncharacteristically silent.

* Due to an editing error, the first name of Nestor Kirchner was incorrectly given in earlier editions. 

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