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Argentine president rewrites the mystery of prosecutor’s death

A firebrand in Prada, the bete noire of foreign creditors, Hugo Chávez’s protege: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has played many parts since she took over the Casa Rosada seven years ago. But few of her roles have been as dramatic as the one she’s taken on since Jan. 18, when federal prosecutor and Fernandez arch-nemesis Alberto Nisman turned up dead on the bathroom floor of his Buenos Aires home with a .22-caliber bullet in his head.

Kirchner wasted little time, branding the death a suicide on Jan. 19. “What drives a person to commit such a terrible act?” she posted on her Facebook. Most everyone else called it murder. Nisman, after all, had just accused Kirchner of trying to whitewash his 10-year investigation into the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

Nisman had blamed Iran for the attack and last week charged Kirchner and some of her closest aides with obstructing his probe in order to smooth a deal to sell Argentine grain for Iranian oil. He was due to brief lawmakers on his 289-page complaint to the Supreme Court in a closed session of Congress on Monday. The complaint was made public Jan. 22.

Now Kirchner has flipped the narrative, spinning a dark tale of rogue spies and an anti-government cabal. Allegedly, these conspirators plotted to execute Nisman — not to silence a dangerous critic, but to pin his murder on her.

“Today I have no proof but I also have no doubts,” she said in a sprawling statement posted Jan. 22 on her personal webpage. “Nisman didn’t know and probably never would,” she wrote. “They used him while he was alive and later needed him dead. It’s that sad and terrible.”

The turnabout caught Kirchner’s palace handlers off guard. “This is totally disconcerting,” an unnamed presidential aide told Clarin.

You’d think they’d be used to whiplash after seven years of “Kirchnerismo.” In 2008, she tried to raise the already-steep export taxes on agricultural exports, sparking a national rural revolt that nearly paralyzed food supplies. When inflation spiked, she tried price controls, and when that failed to calm the economy, she ordered her statistics bureau to cook the books, nearly drawing a red card from the International Monetary Fund. Companies that declined to be bullied into investing when the economy tanked saw their assets seized by bureaucrats. When media published unflattering news, she sued to silence or slice up news outfits like Clarin, dressing up censorship as “social control” of media.

Every time Kirchner took the microphone, a conspiracy bloomed. She recently accused Britain of neo-colonialism for its continued claims over the Falklands (Malvinas to the Argentines), resurrecting the cause that brought down the Argentine junta three decades ago.

She saw a gringo plot to kill her in Argentina’s protracted row with “debt vultures,” the holdout creditors who’d sued Argentina for unpaid loans in a U.S. circuit court. “If something were to happen to me, don’t look to the Middle East. Look to the North,” she said in a television address last year.

And in a rambling speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September, she claimed to have received a threat by the Islamic State and other jihadists over her friendship with the Argentine-born Pope Francis.

These sorts of excesses have come to define Kirchnerismo. But her gyrating mystifications over the Nisman case push the boundaries of even what the well-tested Argentine public is willing to accept. Kirchner’s tumbling approval ratings and Argentina’s prostrate economy won’t help her play to engineer a successor in presidential elections later this year. Even the country’s toxic sovereign bonds traded up this week on bets that Kirchner’s woes will strengthen the hand of her political rivals, such as the market-friendly Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri.

An opposition victory could also pierce the political Kevlar that has so far helped her deflect closer legal scrutiny into a growing list of alleged misdeeds, such as embezzlement and tax evasion. The ruling Partido Justicialista has rallied in her defense, blaming the backlash against Kirchner on the usual suspects, monopolist media, rogue spies and would-be coup makers.

Argentina deserves to know the truth about the worst terrorist attack on Latin American soil, a 21-year-old tragedy that has just claimed its most recent victim and implicates not just high-ranking Iranian officials, but also Argentine enablers seeking to divert investigators from the truth. That’s a task for the Argentine justice system, not palace obfuscators and the country’s reigning drama queen.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro.

© 2015, Bloomberg News