Argentina continues its downward spiral

LONG-WINDED: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waves to supporters before delivering a four-hour speech to Argentina’s National Congress on March 1.
LONG-WINDED: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner waves to supporters before delivering a four-hour speech to Argentina’s National Congress on March 1. AP

March 18 marked two months since the mysterious shooting death of Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman — and still we still have no answers. A few weeks ago, an Argentine federal judge dismissed the indictment that many believe led to Nisman’s death, citing a lack of evidence. That ruling is now being appealed.

Nisman was shot in the head just hours before he was set to deliver testimony before lawmakers on his indictment of numerous high-level officials, including Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and foreign minister Héctor Timerman.

The allegation: They had conducted secret, illegal negotiations with Iran to cover up the involvement of senior Iranian officials in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

The controversial indictment was the culmination of a decade of investigation that, in the end, mapped a significant Iranian terrorist network. The deal allegedly negotiated by Fernández de Kirchner would have completed Iran's long drive to cover up its activities, an exchange of impunity for economic benefits for Argentina.

President Fernández de Kirchner initially declared Nisman’s death a suicide, though she reversed her story in the face of public indignation. Instead, she now blames rogue officers from her own intelligence services of misdirecting Nisman’s investigation and murdering him, with the objective of framing her for his death. She has since dissolved that intelligence agency, replacing it with one of her own design. She has also accused the United States of promoting a coup d’etat and the Argentine judiciary of seeking to end her presidency prematurely.

In her March 1 speech before the National Assembly, where she spoke for nearly four hours, she aggressively attacked Nisman and her other perceived enemies — but she barely mentioned the reality on the ground: The economy is in shambles, inflation is through the roof, crime rates are on the rise, and public confidence in the government has hit rock-bottom. In a year expected to be a slow ride to the end of this administration, it is increasingly unclear if President Fernández de Kirchner will last until this fall’s presidential election.

Yet the Nisman scandal has brought little attention to what his murder could mean beyond her administration and beyond Argentina’s borders. While Fernández de Kirchner, her vice president, and other higher-ups are mired in allegations of corruption and foreign investment prospects are dubious given the country's problematic economic policies, hope remained that a new administration could turn things around.

But Nisman’s death has quashed that hope. A new president could improve Argentina’s economy, but strengthening judicial institutions, improving the rule of law, and restoring the government's credibility will take far longer.

Beyond Argentina’s borders, her decline is part of a broader erosion of democracy in parts of Latin American (and beyond, as in Russia). Destructive populism and authoritarianism have crippled the rule of law, ingrained corrupt patronage, tolerated massive increases in illicit activity, and siphoned billions of dollars out of national treasuries. These governments appear ever more desperate to cling to power by any means.

Those means could include repression of political opposition — a tactic that Nisman’s death could make still more attractive, providing a new tool to quell demands for accountability and transparency. If the Fernández de Kirchner administration emerges unscathed, other radical governments may look to adopt similarly repressive tactics.

This is particularly relevant for Venezuela.

Since Hugo Chávez’s death, Venezuela has descended into chaos. The economy is on the brink of collapse. The Maduro administration has increased its violent repression of anti-Chavista protests, jailing opposition leader Leopoldo López and others on trumped-up charges. A month ago, authorities arrested Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a move the opposition views as politically motivated, part and parcel to Maduro’s allegations that the opposition is conspiring with Washington to overthrow his government.

Nisman’s death, Ledezma’s arrest, and the anniversary of Lopez’s incarceration may revitalize the protest movements that could eventually help restore democracy to two countries with great weight in the hemisphere. The past year has provided abundant catalysts for change in the face of the undeniable failure of the radical populist model.

So what’s next? Will the downward spirals of Argentina and Venezuela continue, or will there be more to protest for change? Will the governments further suppress opposition voices, or could a “Latin American Spring” flower?

The challenges these countries face must be addressed sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we risk setting a dangerous precedent for autocrats and budding caudillos to increase their repression throughout the region.

Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Douglas Farah is a non-resident senior associate with the Americas Program at CSIS and president of IBI Consultants.