A political tsunami of unprecedented proportions and unforeseeable consequences is sweeping through Argentina. The institution-threatening wave comes in the wake of the suspicious death last week of intrepid prosecutor Alberto Nisman — a death that has sent the country into a virtual state of shock unrivaled in recent times.
“It is a very delicate moment,” said Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, Fernández’s main political opponent and a leading contender in October’s presidential elections. “A prosecutor is dead and has not yet been buried. His family is expecting some kind of answer from the government.”
Nisman’s death has thrown the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner into a dizzying spin at the tail end of her second term in office. Her beleaguered administration has been contending with a growing set of problems — 40 percent inflation, court charges of rampant corruption, nagging power cuts, a foreign debt default last year and health problems that recently left her out of public view for over a month. His death has further raised the stakes in the run-up to elections, which will not see Fernández compete because of Argentina’s two-term limit.
She made a dramatic reappearance Monday night in a televised address to the nation, dressed in white and sitting in a wheelchair because of an ankle fracture. She announced that she was dissolving Argentina's powerful Intelligence Secretariat, implying that the agency was behind Nisman's death and his charges against her. “They used him alive, and then they needed him dead,” Fernández said in a letter posted to her website last week. “As sad and as terrible as that.”
Sara Garnfunkel, Nisman’s mother, discovered him in his bathroom in the early hours of Jan. 19 with a bullet wound in the head. He lived in the exclusive Puerto Madero district of the capital in a luxurious high-security apartment complex.
Shortly before his mysterious death, Nisman, 51, presented charges in court against Fernández for allegedly being involved in a conspiracy with Iran. Its aim, he alleged, was to cover up that country’s suspected role in the bombing 20 years ago of the AMIA Jewish community center in downtown Buenos Aires — which killed 85 people and left hundreds of others injured.
The unsolved blast remains a festering wound in Argentina and has been the subject of endless political intrigue — and gross judicial negligence and incompetence. Apart from Nisman's new charges against Fernández, a previous president, a former spy chief, a former judge and two former prosecutors face charges for earlier alleged attempts to cover up and hinder the investigation into the bombing. But none of the previous charges are as detailed and far reaching as Nisman’s latest.
The mystery surrounding his death and his allegations have dominated the media and personal conversations since news of his death was tweeted by Damián Pachter, an Israeli-Argentine journalist, early Jan. 19, before major media had the story.
On Friday, Pachter fled to Israel after he discovered he was being followed by intelligence agents. News of his hurried departure made headlines and added to the saga. In a hair-raising twist, the presidential palace posted a tweet with a photo of his plane reservation, showing he had escaped to neighboring Uruguay, further endangering the journalist by alerting his pursuers where he had flown.
"Argentina has become a dark place led by corrupt system," Pachter wrote in a column for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after arriving in Tel Aviv, adding that he would not return until the next president takes office in December. His flight and the posting of his destination by Fernández’s government has provoked strong words of condemnation in Argentina's media. The FOPEA press association demanded the government provide "measures for the individual protection of colleagues assigned to the case."
“The government made an alliance with the terrorists,” Nisman said after filing his accusation in court. In a 300-page indictment, he exposed highly incriminating wiretaps of a secret negotiation allegedly carried out by close Fernández allies with Moshen Rabbani in Qom, Iran. Rabbani was one of Nisman's main suspects in the 1994 bombing. Since 2007, as the lead prosecutor in the AMIA investigation, Nisman had sought the arrest through Interpol of Rabbani and four other Iranian suspects.
"They decided, negotiated and organized impunity for the Iranian fugitives in the AMIA case, for the purpose of fabricating Iran's innocence based on geopolitical and trade interests," he charged in his accusation. He claimed that through her confidential agents, Fernández sought Iranian oil in return for shielding suspects from his efforts to bring them to trial in Buenos Aires.
Iran has continually denied the claim that it was involved in the AMIA blast and has refused to hand over the five suspects despite Interpol red notices pending against them.
Fernández has vehemently denied the conspiracy charges, dismissing them as the result of an internal war within her Intelligence Secretariat after she fired one its chiefs in the last days of December. She claims that Nisman’s charges were actually penned by enigmatic supersleuth Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, 61, a communications expert who worked closely with Nisman in the AMIA investigation. But her critics allege that Stiuso simultaneously commanded a vast network of agents and phone intercepts that the government used to coerce politicians, judges and journalists to toe its official line.
Fernández started blaming Stiuso and the dark underworld of Argentina’s murky spy services after polls showed that 70 percent of Argentines surveyed believed Nisman was murdered and that 82 percent felt Nisman’s charges against Fernández were credible.
In the first shock of Nisman's death, she labeled his demise as suicide, only to change her tune two days later. The initial claim mirrors a long line of unresolved political “suicides” in Argentina. The deaths stretch back to the never-explained violent death in 1953 of Juan Duarte, the younger brother of Evita Perón, the young wife of then-President Juan Perón and a defender of the "shirtless" workers who adored her. Rumors at the time claimed that Duarte was involved in the transfer of Nazi funds to Argentina after World War II.
"We demand to know the truth of what happened with [Nisman’s] death," Macri said Tuesday. But he, along with the rest of Argentina, could be waiting a long time for that answer.