Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Wednesday in a “Silent March” that screamed volumes about the political tensions dividing this country since Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman died mysteriously one month ago.
Organizers of the demonstration said the show of force was to honor their fallen colleague, who had accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her collaborators of trying to cover up Iran’s role in the country’s deadliest terrorist attack 21 years ago.
To Fernández and her followers, the demonstration was a thinly veiled opposition rally — aimed at tarnishing her final months in office in the run-up to October’s presidential election. Her lieutenants suggested that the crowd were part of an orchestrated “judicial coup.”
Braving a torrential downpour, the masses flowed through the streets of the capital toward the Casa Rosada presidential palace, punctuating the silence with renditions of the national anthem and chants of “justice.” Leading the march were a handful of Nisman’s fellow prosecutors, his ex-wife and his two daughters.
Fernández steered clear of the capital — she inaugurated a nuclear power plant about 60 miles away before staying at a residence outside Buenos Aires.
That the executive branch snubbed an event designed to honor one of the government’s own was troubling, said Alejandro Potenza, 62, who attended the rally with his wife.
“When a national prosecutor gets killed and there’s not progress in the case for an entire month it’s worrisome and that means any one of us is vulnerable,” he said. “Someone from the government should be here.”
The affront was only compounded by Fernández’s attitude, Potenza said. The president declared three days of national mourning when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died in 2013, but she has not even offered public condolences to Nisman’s family, he said.
That the prosecutor’s Jan. 18 death has highlighted political divisions, rather than bringing national unity, is a sign of how polarized the country is, said Sergio Bergman, an opposition deputy.
“Going to the street is the natural reaction of a country that’s in shock,” he said. “It happens when people don’t find the answers they’re looking for in politics so they go seek them on the street.”
Nisman’s body was discovered on his bathroom floor with a gunshot to the head and a pistol by his side. His death came hours before he was scheduled to provide evidence to Congress that Fernández and her associates allegedly tried to cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish cultural center here that left 85 dead.
Nisman’s death didn’t end the allegations. Last week his successor, Gerardo Pollicita, filed formal charges against Fernández and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, among others, for trying to whitewash Iran’s role in the attack in exchange for an oil-for-grain deal.
The government has mocked that theory — saying Iran’s sulfur-rich crude couldn’t be used in Argentina and that it didn’t need the Persian country as an export market. Economy Minister Axel Kiciloff called the allegations “absolutely stupid.”
But it will be up to a judge to decide whether the case moves forward.
Even so, theories about Nisman’s death have swirled and multiplied. Fernández initially called it a suicide before suggesting he was murdered — or induced to kill himself — by the state intelligence services, which she recently began dismantling. In one version of events, the hard-charging prosecutor, on the eve of his biggest case, realized that intelligence officials had fed him false information and that he decided to take his life rather than face the public shame.
His family, friends and collaborators, however, believe he was murdered.
“All Nisman did was open a door so that truth might come out, and he was killed for it,” said Cynthia Mabel Cerveiro, a 68-year-old retiree who traveled two hours by bus to be at Wednesday’s march. “All the corruption in my country just makes me terribly sad.”
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Timerman further muddied the waters when he sent letters to Israel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggesting that his country is a pawn in a larger struggle.
Arguing that independent countries increasingly have become the setting for proxy battles by outside actors, Timerman wrote, “Argentina feels obliged to reiterate that our territory should not be used for purposes of geopolitical and military interests of third countries.”
He also asked that the AMIA case be addressed in ongoing talks between the U.S. and Iran. Washington, however, quickly shot-down the idea.
On Wednesday, just hours before the march, Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich said that demonstration organizers in the judicial branch served corporate masters interested in “destabilizing” and “harassing” the president.
Despite the crush of people, the march appeared to be peaceful and largely free of partisan sniping. Local media estimated as many as 400,000 people rallied in the capital alone. Similar marches were repeated across major cities in Argentina.
The theory-spinning by the administration suggests that it has been caught flatfooted by the crisis, said Jason Marczak, the deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“The government seems to be consistently fishing for how to best take control of the situation,” he said.
The march comes at a delicate time for Fernández, who won a second term in 2011 on the heels of her late husband Nestor Kirchner. She leaves office in December after being constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
Jorge Giacobbe, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst and pollster, said Fernández and her party are desperately trying to retain enough power so they can fend off corruption allegations and keep enemies at bay once they’re out of power.
“We’re seeing an administration that, for a long time, has known that its cycle is over,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing this verbal aggression. They’re nervous and digging in.”
Most analysts believe that the slow gears of justice won’t catch Fernández before she leaves office, but having the scandal hovering over the presidential race will drag down her party, said Daniel Greenberg, the Director of Latin America Studies at PACE University in New York. That may tempt some in her movement to throw her under the bus and expedite her exit from office, he said.
“I think the reason is because Argentina’s world reputation is very much at play here,” he said. “There are bigger things involved than the right to continue in office until the end of her term.”
Buried in the sea of demonstrators, Olga Lopez, 55, waved an Argentine flag with “silent scream” scrawled on it.
She said the largely quiet march — devoid of political harangues — was fitting.
“We’re in mourning,” she said. “And what we’re waiting for is dignity and justice.”