Cristina congratulates Barack

President Cristina Kirchner was quick to congratulate president-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday, sending a letter that read “many will congratulate you for having been able to interpret the hopes and dreams of the American people. I join them in these more than deserved demonstrations of admiration. Nonetheless, this new epoch that begins today in your country is, more than anything, a great moment in epic struggle against discrimination…”

The letter, which was extremely warm, betrays CFK’s hopes that the tide of history is turning her way: neo-liberal capitalism is falling and an ex-activist – a black one, at that – has made it to the White House. After taking office in 2003, her husband Nestor Kirchner began by stablising the turbulent Argentine economy – which was growing rapidly due to the high prices the country’s agricultural products were fetching in a food-hungry market – then started taking up the leftist rhetoric of some of his neighbours and allies.

Cristina casts herself as a modern-day Evita – ex-student activist, defender of the poor and anti-US imperialist (and although experts say poverty has increased under the Kirchners the government manipulates official statistics to match its narrative). The Kirchners have taken up the cause of those who wish to see the crimes of the Dirty War punished, and courts are convicting and jailing ex-military repressors on a regular basis.

Her letter likens the struggle of her generation’s activists against the country’s military dictators – and the high price it paid (around 30,000 Argentines were killed during the 70s and 80s) – to the civil rights movement in the US.

This communion of sacrifice and rebellion, of solidarity and respect for justice, is what you will find in my government and and its people in our decision to advance, without rest, towards a more free and just world.

The Kirchners are from the Peronist party, whose traditions are populist and authoritarian but which delivered hard-fought rights to Argentina’s workers and usually counts on the country’s unions and urban masses for support. The Kirchners have abused the IMF for its role in imposing neo-liberal policies in exchange for loans, which most Argentines and many economists agree helped aggravate the country’s 2001 currency crisis. In a recent address to the UN general assembly, CFK defended the role of the state in the wake of the US financial crisis, and her latest move in that direction is a controversial plan to nationalise the country’s private retirement funds.

Each day we must confront many great challenges. At the moment, the world economic crisis that is unfolding with the destructive speed of an epidemic demands audacious and innovative solutions, but also, collective action.

In this way, just as those who confronted a world war understood the importance of multilateralism, so must we, with the same nobleness and intelligence, make urgent and necessary changes to create a multilateralism that might respond to the complexities of our distinct realities.

We have a great opportunity to eradicate poverty, discrimination and inequality in our societies. As you said in your campaign, to achieve this we need better education, health and opportunities. And, without doubt, more dialogue between leaders and their people.

I know we can count on you, and I want you to know that you can count on my sincere friendship.

DR. CRISTINA FERNANDEZ

President of Argentina

Fernandez de Kirchner will soon head to Washington to the G-20 meeting Bush has convened to discuss the world economic crisis. It remains to be seen whether she and Obama see quite so eye-to-eye as she seems to imagine.

Argentine press weighs in on US elections

All eyes are on the US election, and in Argentina it’s no different, with papers carrying plenty of commentary on the suspense gripping its northern neighbour and much of the rest of the world. According to a recent Latinobarómetro poll, each of the 18 Latin American countries surveyed showed a preference for Obama. Here in Argentina the editorials haven’t been keen to endorse, but what follows is a selection of what was in today’s opinion pages.

The conservative national daily La Nacion’s Martín Kanenguiser says the Kirchner administration, unlike many other foreign governments, is sure to miss George W Bush. “Since 2003, the North American doctrine of not sticking its nose into Latin American beyond Cuba and Colombia has allowed the Argentine government to play about with an erratic foreign policy that has neither drawn it closer to the developed world nor consolidated its regional alliances beyond photo-ops at regional summits or the selling of Argentine bonds to the extravagant Hugo Chávez.”

He mentions several ways in which the Bush administration has suited the Kirchners: Bush looked away when Argentina decided not to include 70% of the debt owed to its private creditors in its 2005 debt restructure, and he didn’t press for a continental free trade agreement that both his father and Clinton had pushed (the Kirchners’ trade policies are highly protectionist). “If the next US president decides to take a more intelligent view of Latin America, maybe the Argentine governent will have to make a bigger effort to be coherent, a quality that does not abound in its latest policies,” he says.

La Nacion also carries a column by former secretary for foreign and Latin American affairs (1996-99), Andrés Cisneros, who says “the arrival of a new North American president always awakes expectations of change, but in Latin America there won’t be much news: if we want change, we’ll have to create it ourselves.” He laments the current Argentine administration’s negative attitude towards the US, which he says has seen Argentine rendered itself irrelevant to its powerful neighbour in favour of a “jurassic 21st century socialism,” and indulgence in “adolescent dreams better suited to a group of student activists than the national administration.” He says Argentina has always had a strong tendency towards anti-Americanism, which whether justified or not, has allowed successive governments to always have on hand someone to blame for the country’s failures, even when the responsibility was entirely Argentina’s.

“The US may never be a close friend of Argentina’s,” he says. “We are not strategically important for them, we have nothing they want and they fear nothing we might do to them. But they are not our enemy. We should, then, try to ensure that they are not hostile towards us, and if we can, that they are not indifferent.” He adds that while Bush has fed the often justified anti-Americanism felt in the world and Latin America, the new president will offer an opportunity to turn the page.

The irreverent national daily La Critica has a column by lefty Martín Caparrós, where he’s his usual skeptical self, asking “has the US changed or has its black population merely changed? Have those blacks who wanted to live in a different country, a more just one, free of discrimination, decided that if they can live in this one, that now discriminates much more on a class basis than on a race basis, then everything’s OK?” He reminds readers that just as voting for a women doesn’t guarantee better deals for women (he names Cristina Kirchner, Angela Merkel and Maggie Thatcher as all having failed to push strong gender equality agendas), nor will a black president guarantee equal rights for black Americans.

Cartoon by Mike Lester

While admitting to having found him inspiring early on, Caparrós today bemoans what he sees as the narrowness of Obama’s vision: that the middle classes pay a bit less in taxes and that he’ll talk to North Korea and Iran “because Kissinger says it’s OK.”  “We all know,” he writes, “that the differences between Deomcrats and Republicans have to do with things that don’t matter to other countries: that rich Americans pay more or less taxes, whether abortion is permitted or not, whether gays may marry, whether schools teach that god made the world in seven days. On the larger themes, above all in foreign policy, there have never been big differences.” “I hope I’m wrong,” he writes, “but compañero Obama gives the impression of being, for us, more of the same.”

Pro-government Pagina 12 has a column by J.M Pasquini Durán, who says the new president will receive a unenviable legacy from the hands of Bush Jr, “one so grave and of such dimensions that it’s difficult to make predictions about the coming administration, one that will have to start working on the first day of the transition owing to the urgency of the situation.”

“The White House,” he writes, “will be hoping for support from a world which holds the US responsible, among other harms, for its decisive role in the warming of the globe, and at the same time its rejection of any sort of collective commitment like the Kyoto Protocol. There’s a whole library full of arguments against the conservative government that tried to steamroll anyone who disagreed with it, but these plays for power by the US president… are to be distinguished from the US people, who suffer the consequences and don’t deserve our indifference.” He warns readers: “If Obama wins, there will no doubt be change, but it would be prudent even in this case to remember that the US’s interests will be the same as they are now. What can and ought to change are their methods of pursuing them.”

Storm in a suitcase

The political scandal that started with a suitcase stuffed with dollars, detected at a Buenos Aires airport late last year, is now irrupting spectacularly, with a conspiracy trial in Miami pointing to crooked dealings between the Argentine and Venezuelan governments.

Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez, photo by TIME

Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez, photo by TIME

The facts are as follows. At around 3:30am on Saturday, August 4, 2007, Venezuelan businessman Guido Antonini Wilson landed in Buenos Aires on a chartered plane from Caracas. He was stopped going through customs, and a young customs official opened it to find some $800,000 in undeclared US bills. The suitcase was seized, but Antonini Wilson was let go (apparently because the appropriate justice official could not be found so early in the morning). Some months later, the young customs official appeared on the cover of Playboy.

The plane, which was chartered by Argentina’s state-owned energy company, carried several other passengers, including four executives from Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, and three Argentine government officials.

A few days later, Argentina’s then-president, Néstor Kirchner, sacked Claudio Uberti, the Argentine official who had offered Mr. Antonini Wilson a lift on the plane. Kirchner swore he was not up to anything crooked, and demanded answers from Hugo Chavez. “I am not covering up anything,” he insisted. “My hands are clean.”

Meanwhile, Nestor Kirchner’s wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was in the middle of her presidential campaign, which would be decided at the polls in November. The campaign involved lots and lots of expensive advertising at home and plenty of appearances in chic foreign locations. No domestic media interviews were granted and she avoided Argentine reporters while on her world tour.

Cristina won the election with a huge margin, but the early days of her presidency were marred when further facts in the suitcase scandal came to light in December 2007.  During the days following the suitcase’s sequestration, there were a number of phone calls registered from Uberti to Néstor Kirchner, and on 6 August, according to witness testimony here in Argentina, a secretary working in the Casa Rosada (or Pink House, offices of the Argentine president in Buenos Aires) saw Antonini Wilson in the building. The next day, he left the country.

By this time, US investigators in Miami had become involved. Three Venezuelans and an Uruguayan were arrested in Miami on charges of acting as agents of the Venezuelan government, operating in the US illegally and allegedly pressuring Antonini to cover up the source of the cash. Antonini Wilson was cooperating with US law enforcement which revealed it had evidence that the cash was destined for the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

The Kirchners stopped demanding answers from Chavez, and started blaming the Evil Empire of the North.

A docile congress rushed to Cristina’s rescue, passing a resolution condemning the US over the investigation. Cristina Kirchner called the case a “garbage operation” and Chavez said it was a CIA plot. The young customs official turned Playboy pin-up, valiantly capitalising on her new-found fame despite death threats, had her dreams shattered when political pressure forced her off a popular reality show. The young woman had been rehearsing for months to appear on “Showmatch” (a program whose vulgarity must be seen to be believed), in its edition called “Skating for a Dream,” where she was set to ice-skate in a sparkly g-string.

But now the case is  on in Miami and the Argentine papers over the weekend were filled with details revealed by the US attorney, who is prosecuting one of the men involved in the imbroglio for failure to register as a foreign agent. The others who were arrested have all pleaded guilty and are now helping investigators.

Saturday's edition of La Critica

Saturday's edition of La Critica

Argentine officials’ constant accusations about the political motivations of the case have forced the US ambassador here to release a statement explaining the basics of the US justice system and the independence of the prosecutor. Perhaps the Kirchners are so stuck in their own mindset, which likes to see the judiciary as a tool of the executive, that they can’t believe things work differently elsewhere. Or maybe they’re just desperate. But even if politics is playing a role in the case – and there’s every reason to believe the US is keen to expose Chavez as a crook – that won’t take much heat off Caracas and Buenos Aires.

President Kirchner is answering no questions about the case, but her officials are busy throwing out one-liners in an effort to deflect inquiries. Exasperation that the US is taking the word of a “delinquent” – Antonini Wilson – over the government’s is one such. Calls for Antonini Wilson’s extradition is another popular non-sequitur. After all, Antonini Wilson was here in Buenos Aires and they let him go. The fact is that the Venezuelan businessman holds US citizenship and is cooperating in an investigation into crimes committed in the US. They’d hardly let him go anywhere right now, much less hand him over to a government suspected to be intimately involved in the scandal.

FBI tapes played in the Miami court (Antonini Wilson was pursuaded to wear a wire on his return to Miami, and the  transcripts are providing plenty of column-fodder for Argentina’s political reporters), along with witness testimony, leave Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez with little option but to use the well-worn (though, it must be said, historically justified) refrain of a yankee plot to destabilise Latin America and undermine its champion-of-the-people leaders. While one can assume that anything that might embarrass Chavez (who has just expelled the US ambassador) would be welcome in US foreign policy circles, the charge of a CIA plot is far-fetched to say the least. Given that the suitcase flew in on a plane hired by the Argentine government, and that its carrier was accompanied by an Argentine government official, the accusations of CIA plot point clearly to extreme incompetence or extreme credulity on the part of the Argentine and Venezuelan governments. All anyone has to do to plant incriminating undeclared cash on these people is to ask politely for a lift in their plane?

The apparently unembarrassable Cristina is now hunkering down trying to work out how she’ll avoid tough suitcase-related questions from reporters (who will be harder to avoid in New York than they are here) when she travels to the US at the end of the week for a United Nations General Assembly.

USA concerned about Argentina’s drug trade

In an update to yesterday’s post, US ambassador to Argentina, Earl Anthony Wayne, expressed concern over what he called increased drug use in Argentina, and the illegal ephedrine trade. Reuters says Wayne told local television yesterday:

“We’re concerned about the rapid growth in illegal trafficking of chemical precursors such as ephedrine.”

La Nacion says 80% of the ephedrine that enters Argentina is unaccounted for and may be used for illicit purposes. Last year 52.4 tons were imported, making Argentina the world’s third-largest ephedrine importer, with a quantity five times as large as the US imports and seven times more than Brazil imports. Only 10 tons were used by the pharmaceutical industry.

The Argentine government says it is establishing systems to register and track ephedrine imports – mostly from Asia – in an effort to ensure that buyers are using the substance legally.