The fate of Santiago Maldonado, who disappeared at the start of August in the Patagonian province of Chubut, escalated as a media story and a political football last week to crowd out most other news.
For example, Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña found his third appearance in Congress, normally a routine formality to report on government activities and answer questions, almost entirely dominated by the issue.
The confrontation peaked around the time of the midweek relaunch of ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s senatorial candidacy after the official count of the August 13 PASO primary declared her the winner in Buenos Aires province (see story on this page). Many of her supporters described the Maldonado case as a “forced disappearance” which justified calling the Mauricio Macri administration a “dictatorship,” prompting often irate reactions from the government.
Beyond the CFK campaign the state was held “directly responsible” for Maldonado’s disappearance by the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel with other human rights leaders expressing a similar opinion. CTERA teachers union has moved to insert the case into school curricula.
But the Macri presidency has also had its more moderate critics, who accuse it of being tone-deaf to the widespread public sensitivity over this potential tragedy in the light of Argentina’s troubled history, placing all expressions of concern into the single basket of electoral opportunism.
Moderation also found its voice on the Kirchnerite side of this clash with former Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli (now occupying the 5th slot in CFK’s Civic Unity Lower House list after having been the then ruling party’s presidential candidate in the previous 2015 elections) insisting that it was absurd to equate a democratically elected government like Macri’s with an “atrocious dictatorship.” But Scioli still saw serious deficiencies in the Macri administration’s handling of the case.
Peña told Congress on Wednesday that the government would not rule out any hypothesis concerning Maldonado’ fate, thus apparently contradicting Security Minister Patricia Bullrich’s vehement weekend denial that the Border Guard could possibly be responsible. Pérez Esquivel called for her resignation.
Yet Bullrich’s denial clashed with the most persistent suspicions surrounding the disappearance of Maldonado, an artisan from the long-standing Patagonian hippie community of El Bolsón (now already almost half a century old) who joined a Mapuche indigenous protest over land rights which was suppressed by Border Guard units and who has not been seen since.