“I remember seeing large air force planes dropping strange packages over the area near where I lived. I did not know what these packages were. But then we saw these packages floating on the delta.”
During the 1970s, Marcos Vidriani was a mechanic living in the Paraná Delta at the mouth of the Río de la Plata, during the reign of Argentina’s last military dictatorship. He described what living under an oppressive regime was like to the Harvard Political Review.
“When we opened the packages, everyone fell silent. The packages were mutilated dead bodies.”
Vidriani’s narrative is not the only one of this type. From 1976 to 1983, Argentina’s military government waged what is now called the Dirty War: a seven-year campaign against suspected dissidents and subversives. People were abducted from their homes, tortured, and then killed. These people came to be known as los desaparecidos, “the disappeared.”
It was neither the first nor last time the Argentine government would be suspected of murdering its own citizens.
Early this year, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her government came under fire when prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead hours before he was to testify against the president to Congress. He had accused Kirchner of trying to cover up a twenty-year old Iranian terrorist attack on Argentinean soil. While the Argentine people may never find out what really happened to Nisman, they can be sure that despite public outrage and the approaching end of the president’s term, very little will change regarding how their government conducts its affairs.
In 1994, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, was bombed, killing 85 people. The attack sparked a national investigation that produced no significant findings for years, and was surrounded in controversy. At one end of the spectrum, people, particularly the Jewish community, demanded answers and became suspicious of the government’s involvement in the investigation. At the other end of the spectrum, the Argentine government remained very tight-lipped about any findings, withholding findings for years. Finally in 2006, Nisman formally accused the government of Iran of conducting the bombings. However, in 2013, Iran and Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding, absolving Iran of any responsibility and halting Nisman’s investigation before his findings were made public. Part of the deal included an exchange of Argentine grains for Iranian petroleum as a way to address Argentina’s energy woes.
Despite Iran and Argentina’s agreement, Nisman kept the bombing investigation alive. In June 2014, he finished a 289 page criminal complaint against Kirchner and Héctor Timerman, Minister of Foreign Relations, and requested their arrests. The document included secret government information and wiretaps that supposedly revealed the Argentine government’s complicity in accepting Iranian oil in exchange for halting the AMIA bombing investigation. It would be an understatement to say that the timing of Nisman’s death has raised the eyebrows of skeptics. The government is now an embarrassing papelón—a laughing stock—trying to explain Nisman’s death without incriminating itself.
Nisman, it seems, has become the 86th casualty of the AMIA bombing.
Evita, Argentina Is Crying; You Just Can’t See It
Yet the Nisman controversy is, unfortunately, no anomaly in Argentine politics. It is symptomatic of a political culture in which corruption thrives and respect for the rule of law is moribund. In an interview with the HPR, Harvard professor Steven Levitsky attributed this fault to institutional instability. Throughout Argentine history, “the rules of the game are set up, and they collapse often within 10, 15 years,” he said. As a result, Argentines have undergone “nearly a century of near constant institutional instability.”
As such, whatever semblance of stability that does exist lacks credibility Since “the rules aren’t going to last very long” people do not expect others to play by them, says Levitsky. When the Supreme Court gets packed, or the Congress gets closed, or the electoral law gets changed, actors expect that these institutions will not stick around for very long. The expectation that “the rules at t=0 are likely to be the same rules at t=1” does not underscore Argentine’s political consciousness.
Argentine society has recently turned a blind eye towards corruption because of the relative economic stability cemented during the mid 2000s. Levitsky explains that the economic boom during the Kirchner administration made the middle class “a little too contento,” too willing to forgive and cast a blind eye to abuse. Historically, the Argentine middle class frequently mobilizes protests against institutional abuses, so when the middle class lets its guard down, almost no one challenges the government. Corruption becomes a feedback loop: as more rules are bent and broken, institutions become more eager to turn a blind eye to offenses, thus augmenting the magnitude of corruption.
Most recently, the Nisman case has stood out in recent years as one of the most extreme examples of the institutional ineffectiveness, endemic corruption, and lackluster accountability that characterize the government of Argentina. The brazenness of the probable murder, however, has shaken the Argentine public out of its “contento” slumber; it has put Argentines on the streets once again.
As the multitude of people poured in, the atmosphere was eerily silent. The only audible noise was the sound of the rain pounding against people’s umbrellas. Wearied mothers, children, aunts, and grandfathers gathered, holding wet signs reading “Yo Soy Nisman,” paralleling “Je Suis Charlie,” and “18-F,” the date of the protest. Not a word was spoken. At that moment the collective Argentine consciousness confronted the reality of living under a regime that takes accountability with a grain of salt.
On February 18, thousands of people flooded the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires to protest the government’s inability to provide answers to questions surrounding the Nisman murder. Across the nation, over a quarter-million Argentines gathered to protest. This marcha del silencio, the silent march, is a strong tradition in Argentinean protest history. After seventeen-year-old María Soledad Morales was brutally raped and murdered in Catamarca in 1990, 10 percent of the country’s population took to the streets. The 1997 killing of photojournalist José Luis Cabezas in Pinamar by a mafia figure with ties to the Menem government generated protests as well. In 2008, a confrontation between Kirchner’s administration and Argentina’s agricultural sector over increasing export taxes on agricultural products resulted in massive demonstrations that partially paralyzed the country’s economy.
Despite Argentines’ proclivity to protest, more often than not, these protests do very little to change national politics. Levitsky explains that these mobilizations are usually about highly specific events that rile up the public. They do not produce a better society, even if people liked Maria Soledad’s and Cabeza’s killers are caught and convicted. This creates the false perception that change will happen, allowing community leaders and politicians to co-opt the narrative. Levitsky explains, “The protestors win sometimes, but protest over specific abuses doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term change or the construction of strong institutions,” making their long-term goals of stability futile. Ultimately, these protests force politicians to answer a few questions, act as if they are addressing the issues, and then revert back to their usual routines.
Will the Nisman murder, which has caused such public consternation and vocal protestation, do anything to change this status quo? It would be a bittersweet irony if Nisman was able to bring through his death the increased accountability and respect for the rule of law that he fought for during his life. Yet although Nisman may be martyred and marched for, although he will not be one of the unnamed and unburied desaparecidos, the hope that his murder will ignite change in the Argentine political system is incredibly faint.
Image Sources: Flickr/Sebastian Criado; Flickr/Global Panorama