Argentina – President May Face Judicial Investigation

In an extraordinary story that took another twist this weekend, the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, may face formal charges over a political cover-up involving a terrorist attack that occurred in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. An Argentine prosecutor has now officially requested that a federal judge formally investigate the president’s actions.

In Argentina’s worst ever terrorist attack, on July 18th 1995, a bomb placed in the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, killed 85 people and left hundreds wounded. To date, no one has been charged and the perpetrators remain the subject of speculation. In 2006, Argentine prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, accused the government of Iran of orchestrating the bombing, and Hezbollah of carrying the actual act out.

Then, in January of this year, Nisman issued a request that a judge interrogate President Fernández and her Foreign Minister, Héctor Timerman. Nisman had prepared a 289-page report, which accused the president and foreign ministry of communicating with the Iranian government via diplomatic back channels and offering to cover-up the involvement of five Iranian suspects in the AMIA bombing in return for a deal which would see Argentine grain exchanged for Iranian oil. Argentina at the moment is facing potentially crippling energy shortages. In 2013, Iran and Argentina signed a memorandum of understanding, which established a joint investigation into the bombing, and more significantly, allowed Iranian officials to give evidence in Iran.

Reminiscent of a plot from a John le Carré novel, on January 19th, the day before he was due to present his evidence to Congress, Alberto Nisman, despite his supposed ten-man security detail, was found dead in his 13th story apartment. He had been shot in the head with a bullet from a Bersa handgun, which was found lying beside him. Whether his death was murder or suicide remains unknown and the subject of fevered speculation.

On Friday, prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita acted on Nisman’s 289-page report, and formally requested the federal judiciary, under the guidance of Judge Daniel Rafecas, to investigate the President, the foreign minister, and Andrés Larroque (an Argentine deputy).

President Fernández is not in any immediate danger of arrest. As President, she is immune from prosecution, unless impeached by the Argentine Congress. However, this is highly unlikely, given her majority in each house. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential impeachment in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive).[1] Protestors are taking to the streets of Buenos Aires, but even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office.

Regardless, this is a political disaster for President Fernández. Although top government officials have dismissed the allegations and even suggested that the whole affair is an attempted coup, this has added to something of an annus horribilis for the president. Amidst spiraling inflation, acrimonious disputes with vulture funds over Argentine debt, and increasing pressure on Argentine bonds, in June Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, was forced to appear in court in order to respond to allegations of corruption. Clearly, although not unexpected, this is the last thing the president needs right now.

What happens next? It is difficult to say. About the only thing that is certain is that this will bring more turmoil to Argentina.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

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