President-elect Javier Milei is at the centre of another controversy after the libertarian leader decided to appoint Rodolfo Barra – a former Carlos Menem government official who attended pro-Nazi rallies in his youth – to a top legal position.
With the libertarian leader still finalising his Cabinet line up ahead of next weekend’s inauguration, names are beginning to be confirmed on a drip-by-drip basis, usually via statements issued from the “President-elect’s Office” on the X social network.
On Friday, as is now customary, a few lines were dedicated to confirmed positions, with Milei’s former presidential rival Patricia Bullrich named as security minister topping the list. But it was the name of Barra, a figure with a controversial past, that most raised eyebrows.
Barra, 75, has been named as the attorney general of the Treasury, responsible for counselling and representing the state in legal matters.
It is a key post in the context of a sweeping reform of government promised by Milei, elected last month on promises of uprooting Argentina's political establishment and dramatically overhauling its ailing economy.
Barra is a lawyer with extensive legal experience for the state. He was a justice of the Supreme Court and held several government posts in the 1990s, including as justice minister from 1994 to 1996 under then-president Carlos Menem.
Yet he had to give up his government post in the 1990s after an investigation uncovered links to pro-Nazi groups and highlighted anti-Semitic claims.
He was forced to resign from that post over the public outcry that ensued after a photo of him as a teenager, with his arm outstretched in a Nazi-style salute, was published by Noticias news magazine.
His efforts to apologise away the fact he was a member of an ultranationalist, allegedly anti-Semitic movement as a youth, failed.
While serving as justice minister for then-president Carlos Menem, then-economy minister Domingo Cavallo even accused Barra of delaying investigations into the terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Israeli-Argentine Association Jewish community centre.
Several civic groups and opposition politicians have protested against Barra's appointment in recent days and urged Milei to reconsider.
The Argentine Forum Against Anti-Semitism (FACA) expressed its "concern and rejection" of an appointment it said represented "a direct affront to the democratic and plural spirit of our country."
However, another Jewish organisation, the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations (DAIA), noted in a statement that Barra had "in the 1990s apologised to DAIA for his horrible behaviour."
A 1970 graduate of the Argentine Catholic University (UCA), specialising in administrative law, Barra was appointed deputy public works and utilities minister in 1989 by incoming president Menem. A few months later, he took on the role of interior secretary.
In 1990, Congress approved a bill increasing the number of Supreme Court justices to nine, and with the consent of the Senate, Menem appointed Barra, a position he held until his resignation in 1993.
The following year Barra was selected as one of the delegates to the Constituent Assembly for rewriting the constitution and then in 1995, Menem chose him to be justice minister, a portfolio he gave up after reports of his controversial past became publicly known.
On Saturday, he told LN+ TV: "I was a teenager, a teenager lacking maturity, knowledge. Many at this teenage age do crazy things, and I did this madness.”
"I was 15 years old, a teenager … I did not consider myself a Nazi sympathiser," he added.
The group to which Barra was linked, Tacuara, was active mainly in the 1950s and 1960s. He was part of the Nationalist Union of Secondary School Students, an associated youth political organisation that supported fascist and neo-Nazi movements that was active between 1957 and 1966.
“His activism in his youth in the Nazi Tacuara group was, for years, the Justice minister’s best kept secret,” reported an article printed by Noticias in 1996.
"If as a youth I was a Nazi, I am sorry," he told the magazine.
The article was accompanied by an undated photo from a Nationalist Union of Secondary School Students meeting, in which the group recreated the Sieg Heil salute. A similar scene from 1964 was also reproduced, when the Tacuara group took over the Cabildo in Buenos Aires for National Sovereignty Day.
Calling for the removal of the job offer, Anti-Semiticism campaigners FACA said that the appointment of Barra “dishonours our country’s spirit of democracy and plurality.”
It is “unacceptable for someone with a background linked with the Nationalist Tacuara Movement, with pro-Nazi tendencies, to be appointed to such a relevant position,” said the group.
“We decisively demand the reconsideration of the appointment of Rodolfo Barra. A new government cannot start its administration housing individuals who have professed anti-Semitism or any form of hatred in its ranks,” the institution said.
Claudio Avruj, human rights secretary during the 2015-2019 Mauricio Mari administration, described the decision as damaging to democracy.
“The appointment of Rodolfo Barra as attorney general is not good for democracy. It damages it. It was precisely for the same things we point out today from FACA that he was removed by president Menem as Justice minister,” he said.