A Warrant From Beyond the Grave
A tantalizing new piece of evidence has been found in the mysterious death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Can President Kirchner survive the brewing political scandal?
The new year has already proven itself a veritable boom time for Latin American scandals. There’s disappearing billions in Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, there’s disappearing (likely murdered) students in Mexico, and Venezuela's delectable scandal du jour involves a bodyguard turning U.S. state’s witness to allege that the second most powerful man in the government in Caracas has been moonlighting as a narco-cartel kingpin. Yet even in the competitive field of Latin American corruption and hijinks, it is the suspicious death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman in Argentina on Jan. 18 and its aftermath that seem most likely to have a definitive and transformative impact on one country -- and perhaps the whole region.
The new year has already proven itself a veritable boom time for Latin American scandals. There’s disappearing billions in Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, there’s disappearing (likely murdered) students in Mexico, and Venezuela’s delectable scandal du jour involves a bodyguard turning U.S. state’s witness to allege that the second most powerful man in the government in Caracas has been moonlighting as a narco-cartel kingpin. Yet even in the competitive field of Latin American corruption and hijinks, it is the suspicious death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman in Argentina on Jan. 18 and its aftermath that seem most likely to have a definitive and transformative impact on one country — and perhaps the whole region.
Nisman was found dead in his luxury high-rise apartment, his door locked from the inside, and a gun with a spent cartridge on the floor nearby. The death took place 12 hours before Nisman was supposed to testify to Congress. Police initially thought it was a suicide. The bumbling government response and the particular timing during the run-up to October’s presidential elections — not to mention the most recent revelation that Nisman had drafted an arrest warrant for the president and her foreign minister — have created a perfect storm for Argentina’s sitting government. A population clamoring for answers is coming to see that the only way to get them might be a new administration, Peronist or otherwise, that would dramatically break with the politics of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
As lead prosecutor, Nisman had been investigating the case of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AIMA), a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that was bombed in 1994, killing 85 and injuring hundreds. It was the worst terrorist attack in South American history — an incident that still reverberates in the hearts and minds of Argentines today. (At a recent memorial for the bombing, survivors and victims’ families symbolically added Nisman’s name to the list of victims.)
The initial investigation, launched immediately after the attack, had been a shambles, resulting in no convictions and scant indictments. There were abundant allegations of impropriety, evidence suppression, and bribery. Nisman’s appointment in July 2004 — 10 years after the attack — by former President Néstor Kirchner, Cristina’s late husband, was meant to represent a fresh start, a redoubling of the government’s efforts to finally bring justice. And yet from the start, Nisman’s findings, linking the crime back to Iran, often seemed to run contrary to the diplomatic policies of Argentina’s increasingly leftist leadership, particularly following Néstor Kirchner’s 2010 death and the radicalization of his wife and successor, who cozied up to Iran and Venezuela.
The increasingly stormy relationship between Cristina Kirchner and Nisman continued to build. Mere days before his death, Nisman filed a nearly 300-page legal brief that directly implicated the president, her foreign minister, and key members of her administration in covering up Iranian responsibility for the terrorist attack and canceling outstanding international warrants for certain Iranian officials so that closer diplomatic and commercial ties would not be damaged. The brief alleged that an oil-for-grain deal with Tehran to ease Argentina’s ongoing energy woes was the incentive for this cover-up. It has since emerged that an original, un-submitted version of Nisman’s brief even sought the imprisonment of Kirchner and some of her closest collaborators, with Nisman going as far as to have drafted a 26-page arrest warrant for the president and her foreign minister.
Nisman’s investigation has come under fire in some corners. A high profile figure at Interpol (which was among the first to finger Iran for the AIMA bombing) criticized some of Nisman’s claims as false, while a board member at Human Rights Watch Americas recently published a scathing op-ed calling the brief “weak” and lacking references to jurisprudence.
Yet while the full details of Nisman’s investigation are not yet public, leaked tapes and documents suggest there may be some merit at least to his claim that the Kirchner administration may have wilfully undermined the investigation by, for example, setting up a parallel investigative joint commission with the Iranians themselves in 2013. For a government that has long made human rights a lynchpin of its rhetoric, accusations that justice may have been subverted in the name of commercial expediency would run deeply counter to the image that Kirchner has tried to convey since as far back as her time as first lady, that of a defender of human rights making up for Argentina’s notorious history.
The president remained uncharacteristically silent throughout the initial hours after Nisman’s death. This caginess was short-lived, however, and she soon published two long letters on Facebook within three days. The first toyed with the suicide thesis that the government had been pushing, while the second professed her conviction that Nisman had been murdered. Soon after, the president appeared on television to defend herself. But hours later, the new prosecutor in the case was seen on TV openly contradicting a president who was involving herself in the investigation, going to great lengths to question the late prosecutor’s travel schedule and the authorship of his indicting brief. (Recent polling suggests no less than 70 percent of Argentines disapproved of Kirchner’s televised message, not only because she failed to send her condolences to Nisman’s family, but also because she seemed to keep attacking the prosecutor posthumously.)
Nisman’s mysterious death has drawn increased national and international attention to the contents of the investigation itself. But it likewise draws attention to the recent Kirchnerite embrace of Iran, a move that many Argentines strongly opposed given the government’s previous line on that country’s likely culpability for the 1994 attack. This new affiliation was a page from the book of close regional ally Hugo Chávez, and one that now seems increasingly shortsighted at a time when low oil prices have Iranian (and Venezuelan) influence on the wane.
Argentina’s presidential election this October will deliver the first Kirchner-less administration since 2003. Ahead of that, Cristina Kirchner has hopes of shoring up her legacy. With the Nisman scandal and her discombobulated response — first claiming it was a suicide before then blaming rogue intelligence agents — she has lost the ability to shape the political conversation, perhaps for the first time in her two terms as president.
Today (and for the foreseeable future) the only story in Argentina anybody cares about is the Nisman investigation: its details, its inconsistencies, and its implications. For 10 days, newspapers’ front pages and TV news have dealt with little else. The latest polls suggested that no less than 98 percent of people were aware of Nisman’s death and the investigation into Kirchner’s role in covering up the bombing. And 68 percent of Argentines worry that they may never truly know what happened. The case, which seems straight out of a Hollywood spy movie, has eclipsed any previous concerns about Argentina’s sovereign debt default, government corruption scandals, and even the disastrous economic policies that have delivered three years of steady stagflation and a veritable carousel of economic crises.
With initial claims of suicide now largely discarded, the question of who is responsible remains open and speculation is rampant: Was it Iranian intrigue? Mossad intrigue made to look like Iranian intrigue? At present, Argentina’s own famously unruly intelligence apparatus is the primary focus of suspicion, having garnered accusations from the CIA, Iranian state media, the Argentine opposition, and, of course, Kirchner herself.
The president’s relationship with the intelligence services has long been complicated. She often seemed hostile toward the country’s intelligence brass; then again, some former intelligence officers have claimed the president was close to certain groups and “enjoyed” listening to wiretaps of opposition leaders. And at present Kirchner is pushing to have the intelligence secretariat dissolved outright. So if deadly spy games were indeed behind this, were the killers Kirchner’s secret service members acting upon (or misinterpreting) a presidential cue to “be rid of” a troublesome prosecutor? Or was it rogue agents or former agents seeking to undermine Kirchner in response to a recent purge of the intelligence apparatus?
The ubiquity of such speculative conversations now circulating in Argentina is dredging up old and uncomfortable ghosts. Between 1976 and 1983, tens of thousands of Argentines were “disappeared” under a brutal military junta, leaving distraught friends and family to speculate as to their actual fate — much as they are doing now for Nisman. Similarly, the fleeing of the reporter initially covering the death there in fear to Tel Aviv (like Nisman, he was Jewish) and new reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Nisman posters in Buenos Aires are reopening old wounds — particularly within Argentina’s influential Jewish community of around 300,000. This is a history that stretches back further than the bombing at the heart of the Nisman scandal, all the way to when Nazi war criminals like Adolf Eichmann were given asylum and kept close by the Perón administration.
Ultimately, the prosecutor is more dangerous to the Kirchner legacy in death than he ever was in life. There are eight months until the presidential contest in Argentina, but barring a miracle, Kirchner seems unlikely to be able to come back from this political debacle, her post-presidential influence will be tapered, and with it any hope should she dream of returning to power someday. (She is not barred from running for president again in 2019.) Eighty percent of Argentines believe the scandal will damage her government and over 60 percent say it will do so “gravely.”
In the race to succeed Kirchner, every presidential hopeful is trying to distance him- or herself from a president whose reputation has become increasingly toxic. The usually hierarchical Peronist Party is suddenly awash with voices of dissent, while the usually atomized opposition, led by presidential hopefuls Sergio Massa and Mauricio Macri, has been marshaling the promise of an independent investigation into issues surrounding both the Nisman murder and the AIMA bombing — a popular position. People want answers, and in a closely fought contest, their curiosity may yet finish off Kirchner politically once and for all.
ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.