Andres Oppenheimer

Argentina’s front-runner for president doesn’t think Venezuela is a dictatorship. That’s not good | Opinion

Argentine presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez did not criticize Nicolás Maduro during a recent television interview.
Argentine presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez did not criticize Nicolás Maduro during a recent television interview. Getty Images

Alberto Fernandez, the front-runner in Argentina’s presidential race, is trying to present himself as much more moderate than his radical populist running mate, vice-presidential candidate and former president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. But what he’s saying about Venezuela should be triggering alarm bells everywhere.

“It’s very hard to describe an elected government as a dictatorship,” Alberto Fernandez said in an Aug. 25 television interview with Argentina’s La Cornisa. He added that Venezuela may have become “authoritarian,” but said that, “Institutions are working there.”

There are three major reasons why Fernandez could have said such falsehoods, and all of them are deeply troubling.

The first is that he hasn’t been catching up with foreign news for the past 10 years — which is highly unlikely — and is ignoring the fact that Venezuela has become a human-rights catastrophe much like those caused by Argentina and Chile’s military dictatorships in the 1970s.

The second, and more plausible, reason is that Fernandez knows that President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela is responsible for at least 6,856 suspicious deaths of opposition activists just over the past year and a half, according to United Nations figures, but he does not want to say it to avoid irking his running mate, the former president.

“Cristina,” as the former president is known in Argentina, was Maduro’s close ally while she was in office and she currently spends part of her time in Cuba, where her daughter reportedly is undergoing a medical treatment.

If Alberto Fernandez is going soft on Maduro for fears of antagonizing Cristina, it would prove what many Argentines already suspect: Cristina is the one who calls the shots on the Fernandez-Fernandez ticket. It was she who picked him as the presidential candidate and announced it publicly, and it’s she who runs their party’s political machine.

The third reason , which would be just as worrisome, is that Alberto Fernandez believes there are good dictatorships and bad” ones. Using this logic, a right-wing dictatorship such as Chile’s under Gen. Augusto Pinochet or Argentina’s under Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla would be “bad” dictatorships, while those that are leftist, such as Maduro’s, would be “good” ones.

Never mind that Maduro’s regime butchered almost 7,000 opposition activists in the past 18 months, more than twice the total of such murders during Pinochet’s 17-year rule and as much as the state-directed killings and “disappearances” during Videla’s rule in Argentina.

Whichever reason motivated Fernandez to be so gentle with Maduro, here are the facts:

- Maduro, who already was an authoritarian ruler, became a full-blown dictator in 2016, when he stripped the democratically elected, opposition-led National Assembly of virtually all its legislative powers and created his own congress.

- Maduro became an even more ruthless dictator in 2018, when he held a fraudulent presidential election after arresting, sending into exile or banning from running virtually all major opposition candidates. He didn’t allow any credible international election observer into the country.

- The May 20, 2018, election was such a joke that all major Western democracies agreed not to recognize Maduro as the legitimate president when he took office for a new term on Jan. 10. Most of them recognize Juan Guaidó , the president of the National Assembly, as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

- Venezuela’s corrupt dictatorship has created a humanitarian crisis that has driven more than four million Venezuelans to leave the country over the past five years, according to U.N. figures. Guaidó told me in a recent interview that the figure is likely to double to 8 million by next year.

Going back to Argentina’s Albert Fernandez, who according to recent primary results has a very good chance of winning the Oct. 27 presidential elections, his gaffe on Venezuela is a bad omen for those who hope that he will be a moderate if he becomes president.

His comment show that he’s either badly misinformed, that he is a Cristina puppet or that he believes that there can be “good dictatorships.”

Any of these three possibilities would be bad for Argentina.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. Sunday E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera