Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Argentina’s leader claims of ‘coup’ are ridiculous

President Cristina Fernández’s over-reaction to new formal charges that she tried to cover up Iran’s suspected role in the 1994 terrorist attack against the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires suggests that things in Argentina will get a lot worse before they get better.

Fernández, who is scheduled to leave office after October presidential elections in which she can’t run seek a third term, claimed that the formal charges filed Friday against her, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman and two other close supporters amounted to a “coup” attempt against her government.

Instead of continuing with her previous strategy of trying to discredit the accusations by claiming that they are untrue and legally unsustainable for lack of evidence, and by characterizing the prosecutors as a bunch of amateurs, she raised the stakes.

Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich called the new formal charges “an active judicial coup,” and presidential secretary Anibal Fernández denounced them as “a clear maneuver of anti-democratic destabilization.”

They were referring to the decision by prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita to file formal charges against Fernández and Timerman for allegedly conspiring with Iran to derail the investigation into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA center that left 85 people dead and about 300 wounded.

The prosecutor effectively validated a 289-page criminal complaint that had been presented by late prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 14, four days before he was found dead in his apartment. The government at first called Nisman’s death a suicide, only to admit later that it may have been a murder.

Many Argentine and foreign legal experts wonder why the government reacted with such anger to the latest accusations. In fact, Pollicita’s formal accusation raises Nisman’s legal case by a relatively small notch. It will be up to a judge to decide whether the case will proceed or be dismissed for lack of evidence, legal experts say.

So why did the Fernández government overreact, if it is convinced — as it says — that the charges are based on flimsy evidence and won’t stand up in court?

One theory is that it was an automatic reaction by an authoritarian-populist government that instinctively describes as a “coup attempt” what in any other modern democracy would be seen as part of the normal functioning of the separation of powers.

Much like in Venezuela, where embattled President Nicolás Maduro has already denounced four different coup attempts since he took office two years ago, without providing any solid evidence, Fernández may be trying to deflect public attention from her growing political and economic troubles.

In Argentina, in addition to the new charges against Fernández for allegedly seeking to cover up Iran’s responsibility in the 1994 AMIA bombing, Vice President Amado Boudou is under investigation on at least two corruption cases, and there are about 300 other accusations against senior government officials and their close relatives, most of them on corruption charges.

In addition, Argentina’s economy is rapidly going downhill. Most economists expect the economy to contract by at least 1.3 percent this year, and inflation to remain at 33 percent this year.

Amid all of this, several prosecutors have called for a massive march on Wednesday to demand an effective investigation into Nisman’s death. Most opposition leaders have vowed to attend the march.

Another theory is that Fernández has decided to counter-attack as part of a planned strategy to stay at the center of the political stage, keep her followers motivated, and secure both the loyalty of her government’s candidate and a substantial representation in Congress after the October elections.

“Cristina (Fernández) will double the bet,” wrote La Nación’s columnist Mariano Obarrio. “The order coming down from the presidency is to charge that there is a conspiracy by prosecutors, judges, spies that have gone out of control, the media, corporations and international interests.”

Santiago Canton, head of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington D.C., agrees that greater political polarization lies ahead. He told me that “the president wants to hide her government’s corruption, crimes and violations under the cover of accusations that those of us who believe in justice and freedom of the press are coup plotters.”

My opinion: The Fernández government’s claims of a “judicial coup” attempt are ridiculous. The president’s latest reactions — including the appointment of three mostly pro-government prosecutors to replace Nisman — suggest that she will step up her authoritarian ways in coming months in order to portray an image of strength as she tries to negotiate impunity for herself and her top aides after the October elections. Until then, get ready for an escalation of government abuses in Argentina.