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The Nisman Affair

Seizing on the death of a government official, the Right seems determined to create another crisis in Argentina.

Protesters in Argentina at a January 2015 demonstration. Monica Argentina / Flickr

On January 18, late on a Sunday night, Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his luxury high-rise apartment in the nouveau riche Puerto Madero neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The police have stated that the cause of death was almost certainly suicide, though they are still investigating it as a “suspicious death.” Speculation has been raging as to what would cause a prosecutor to commit suicide at the climax of his life’s work.

The Kirchner administration, its increasingly fortified right-wing opposition, and the general public are not in a credulous mood. One sign at the following night’s rally at the Plaza de Mayo, attended largely by well-heeled but red-faced representatives of the Buenos Aires professional classes, read: “no pueden ‘suicidarnos’ a todos” (they can’t “suicide” us all).

In an open letter posted to Facebook and Twitter, Kirchner eschewed a head of state’s usual politesse in the face of tragedy and scandal. Instead, she alluded to a conspiracy against her government involving a litany of state and corporate actors, including former President Carlos Menem, an ex-director of the Secretaría de Inteligencia (SI), a counterterrorist operator in the federal police, a powerful judge, and the media conglomerate Clarín.

Meanwhile, opposition politicians are making more or less open accusations of foul play against the administration. At the Plaza de Mayo, where roughly ten thousand people gathered in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, there was a sentiment supporting the theory of a state assassination. Signs were held depicting guns with Kirchner’s name inscribed on them, dripping with pink blood.

The use of the color is not arbitrary: in addition to seemingly advocating against Argentina’s first female president, it also refers to the onda rosa, the pink tide, or the vuelta a la izquierda, the turn to the left, that has become the shorthand for the progressive governments in South America that broke with the Washington Consensus during the first decade of the twenty-first century. People old enough to remember the days of the dictatorship spoke ominously of the need for military intervention.

Much of this might sound like the sickly epiphenomena of the media spectacle that currently substitutes for real global politics. But its implications for the political future of Argentina are grave. The Kirchner government has been beset by its own pervasive corruption, political cowardice, and reactionary tendencies: much of the promise of her late husband and former President Néstor Kirchner’s vuelta a la izquierda, as tentative and reformist as it was, has already been betrayed.

The Right, led by the industrial magnate and neoliberal strongman Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires (an extremely powerful position in Argentina’s federal system), is on the attack. Given the current disarray of Kirchner’s Justicialist Party, he has a good shot at being the next president, which would be devastating to the hopes and prospects of the Latin American left.

Since 2005, Nisman had been leading the investigation into the heinous and still unsolved 1994 car bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, an attack that killed eighty-five people. The attack outraged Argentines, who were finally emerging from decades of state terrorism and demanding not only the restoration of democratic society but prosecution of the military and civilian figures who were responsible for the deaths and disappearances of more than thirty thousand Argentine citizens.

On flimsy evidence (much of which was drawn from a defecting Iranian intelligence official who later provided “information” to the US government establishing Iran’s role in planning 9/11), the Argentine government, in concert with US intelligence and law enforcement agencies, settled on the theory that the attack was carried out by Hezbollah and orchestrated by Iran.

The government’s failure to identify and prosecute the perpetrators — as well as the implication of the Menem administration in a cover-up and bribery scandal at the same time as it was institutionalizing deeply unpopular neoliberal shock therapy — led to widespread disillusionment that is still festering today.

In fact, despite the current hay the Right is making with Nisman’s death, Menem’s shady financial dealings, as well as the evident corruption of the Argentine judiciary and federal police during the investigation, played a role in the election of Néstor Kirchner’s left-wing government in 2003, which promised to deliver the country not only from the grip of American imperialism but from the corruption of the domestic oligarchy.

In June 2013, after years of inertia and incompetence, the investigation took on a new urgency when the Kirchner government, for reasons that are still obscure to most analysts, decided to adopt a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran to jumpstart the judicial inquiry into the 1994 bombing. (The resolution was passed in the Argentine Congress without a single vote in favor from opposition legislators.)

One theory is that Kirchner’s move towards rapprochement with Iran was actually an attempt to move closer to Washington and the Obama administration, which in 2013 was signaling a willingness to rehabilitate Iran’s international standing. Another theory is that Kirchner was engaging in Bandung-style anti-imperialism.

Either way, Argentina has a lot to gain from renewed economic ties with Iran. YPF, its state-run petroleum industry, is being subsidized heavily and yet the country still has to import oil. And the success of every Argentine government hinges in large part on its ability to keep the agricultural sector profitable.

The terms of the agreement were mild — the commission was to be composed of independent jurists — but the result was catastrophic for Argentina. In addition to alienating a large segment of the Argentine population still chafing at the supposed impunity of the Iranian government, the accord with Iran infuriated the US national security establishment and may have had a role in souring the Obama administration on the idea of taking Argentina’s side in its decade-long judicial dispute with los buitres, the vulture capitalists who are suing Argentina for the recovery of debt purchased after its 2001 default and subsequent renegotiation with the overwhelming majority of its creditors.

Then, at the beginning of this year, the case somehow got tangled up in Homeland-esque geopolitical intrigue.

Here are the facts that are known: five days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Nisman cut short a vacation he was taking in Spain to celebrate the fifteenth birthday of his daughter. He arrived in Argentina on January 12 and the following day submitted a 289-page indictment to a federal judge. His haste was surprising to all parties involved, considering the fact that he had been working on the investigation for ten years and that the judiciary was in recess for fifteen more days.

In the meantime, he began to talk to the press about shocking new findings in the AMIA case, the crux of which were the Kirchner government’s secret deals with the Iranian government to drop charges against Iranian officials in exchange for much-needed petroleum shipments, weapons trading, and closer diplomatic and economic ties.

The most damning evidence, he claimed, consisted of intercepted phone calls between members of the Argentine and Iranian governments. This evidence, in turn, points to the involvement of Nisman’s former collaborator, the ex-chief of the SI, Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, who in December was removed from his post and who has been accused of operating a parallel security state. Moreover, there are rumors that Nisman himself was about to be removed from the AMIA investigation due to his colleague’s implication in the case.

On January 19, Nisman was scheduled to give a highly anticipated speech on his findings before the Argentine Congress. But the day before, he failed to meet various scheduled commitments. He had ten federal bodyguards assigned to his security, but he had previously instructed them that they did not need to be with him at his home. His mother was asked to check in on him. A locksmith let her into the apartment. They found his dead body in the bathroom.

The gun that was used — a .22-caliber pistol — had been lent to him by a friend, an information technology consultant from the federal prosecutor’s office, who himself has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. No gunpowder was found on his hand, but the weapon is considered too small by many forensics investigators to leave that type of evidence. The autopsy revealed “no third party involvement.”

Questions — and theories — abound. Many, including the Kirchner government, have cast doubt on the sudden provenance of the 289-page report, with suggestions that it was written for him by a third party, in an attempt to smear the government by connecting it to terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Página 12, the most reliably pro-government media outlet, has suggested that the weakness of his case (contested by, among others, the ex-secretary general of Interpol and the judge of the AMIA case) led him to commit suicide, perhaps in a Mishima-like attempt to keep his life’s work alive through a morbid spectacle, in order to counteract its empirical failure.

But, on the streets of Buenos Aires at least, the theories and sentiments of the Right have won out for the moment. These include the arguments of cultural conservatives and political neoliberals that Argentina has fallen perilously into the authoritarian orbit of China (as well as BRICS in general), having callously played second fiddle to China, with its refusal to send representatives to the “Unity March” in Paris on the grounds of multiculturalism. Kirchner, in her first open letter, rebuffed this jab, stating that not only the Argentine ambassador but her minister of foreign relations, harshly implicated in Nisman’s report, had been present.

Those even further to the right parrot the line of the AIPAC/Republican opposition to the Obama administration, claiming that the new international consensus on normalization of relations with Iran is a Trojan Horse for an anti-Western, anti-Christian, anticapitalist conspiracy. The bourgeois media is speaking forthrightly of criminal charges against the Kirchner government.

A healthy if sometimes myopic human rights culture has a strong hold in Argentine society, coupled with an abhorrence of political violence of all kinds. The “common sense” sentiment here is one of indignation and moral exhaustion. Most of Buenos Aires is deserted for the month of January, and reports are coming in of distress and sorrow at the more working-class beach resorts of Argentina (as opposed to the resorts frequented by the upper classes, often in Uruguay or other beaches of Latin America).

Regardless of who killed Nisman, for more apolitical Argentines, the facts themselves are appalling and don’t bode well for the future. They’re right.

The ultrakirchnerist apparatchiks and other left-wing figures are accusing Nisman of being an Israeli-American agent. They are onto something about the close working relationship between Nisman and the US government. And certainly the Israeli government has been capitalizing off of Nisman’s death in the same way that it has capitalized off the AMIA bombing for twenty-one years, as well as the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, an attack that was also attributed to Hezbollah.

Even Clarín, the most virulent anti-Kirchner media outlet, admits that Nisman “no era un santo” (“wasn’t a saint”) and was operating under the auspices not only of Argentine intelligence but of the CIA and Mossad. Nevertheless, these conspiracies are based on circumstantial evidence and are adding more fuel to the paranoiac fire.

In the meantime, the worker, student, and immigrant left have been on their guard. As with the Muslim population in Europe, they sense that this international scandal can and will be used as a cudgel against them. They know they have nothing to do with it, but that the forces aligned against them are vast.

Moreover, these groups have traditionally been the victims of the very security state that is now cannibalizing itself. Their work has been and will continue to be a demand for the abolition of the security state as well as accountability for those who use it to violate human rights. This work is complicated by the fact that the Argentine left is internally divided over the question of how closely to cooperate with the Kirchner government.

Prominent human rights groups, such as the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), have been criticized by the radical left for their cozy relationship with the administration. Though CELS has been asked for input on designing the new intelligence agency, its past collaboration with a government that has used the security state to harass and violently suppress labor and community organizing groups casts doubt on its ability to effectively meet this new challenge. And while Syriza’s victory in Greece has had a bracing effect on hopes for democratic socialism in Argentina, these hopes coincide with a profound and justified disappointment in the record of kirchnerismo.

Meanwhile, the more reactionary faction of American imperialism is lining up against Argentina. A new neocon consensus exists on the “pariah” status of Argentina, and this has been reflected in mainstream outlets such as the New York Times. In the current climate of Western bellicosity — in which we see an increasing conflation between terrorism and uncooperative or “rogue” nation states — the Left needs to be on alert for a renewed incursion into the sovereignty of Latin American nations.

The connection to the situation in Venezuela should also be made. The red-baiting of the liberal media was indispensable in creating the ideological climate that allowed the Bush administration and then (in a characteristically more underhand manner) the Obama administration to pursue its anti-democratic, pro-oligarchic adventures in the country. During the years of the “war on terror,” that red-baiting would never have been effective had it not been for the neocon chimera that conjoined Latin American leftism to narco-trafficking to Islamic jihadism.

Like Argentina, Venezuela is a petroleum-producing country with forays into progressive governance that have been undermined by hyperinflation, an insurrectionary right, international conspiracy, and the tendency towards bureaucracy in these conditions.

Unlike Argentina, however, Venezuela’s good relations with Iran have never been hidden. Indeed, they have been vital to its anti-imperialist credentials. Argentina has pursued a considerably more moderate and meliorist path than Venezuela, but the Right seems determined to create another Venezuelan crisis, which itself is a recapitulation of the original Latin American bourgeois insurrection in the months leading up to the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende.

For the moment, a military coup is unlikely. Nevertheless, the continued weakening of Argentine democracy by a violent, unaccountable, and internally feuding establishment is almost a certainty.