If the purpose of this column is to relate a topic of the week to the past on the basis of my Buenos Aires Herald newsroom experience from 1983 to 2017 (and in this newspaper since then), today’s theme of presidential appearances at the United Nations General Assembly runs deeper than most because it actually predates the return of democracy – all the way from General Reynaldo Bignone in the last gasps of his military presidency in 1983 to Mauricio Macri’s last appearance in 2019 (since the Tuesday speech of President Alberto Fernández was his maiden live performance at the UN General Assembly due to the coronavirus pandemic).
To begin at the end, this week’s presidential speech caused more of a splash here than in New York and on the basis of a domestic rather than international issue – the explosive start to this month with the attempted assassination of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This was attributed by President Fernández to “fascist violence disguised as republicanism” – does this mean that republicanism is so much candy floss or what was he trying to say? The attack was presented as the “most important” against a “Nunca Más (Never Again)” democratic consensus of almost four decades – although not only did bullets actually leave guns but there were double-digit death tolls in both the La Tablada terrorist bloodbath of 1989 and the Army mutiny of 1990, apart from previous carapintada uprisings.
Despite that opening, it was neither a single-issue nor parochial speech. President Fernández obviously could not ignore this year’s elephant in the room, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – even if his call for peace evaded describing it in those terms, instead highlighting Argentina’s potential contribution to food and energy security. Like every president before him (with the peculiar exception of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2015), he reaffirmed Argentina’s South Atlantic sovereignty rights. Fernández also deplored the “blockades” against Cuba and Venezuela without admitting that there might be any justification for them such as the violation of human rights in both countries (also Nicaragua) while upholding those rights universally. He further reverted to a favourite hobby horse of calling for the International Monetary Fund’s interest rate surcharges to be scrapped but otherwise the 15 minutes allotted to him did not allow him to be too specific about the other themes he touched such as climate change. Urging a “new capitalism,” the presidential speech ended with a call for an end to poverty, hunger and inequality in the world.
The above summary does not include enjoining Iranian co-operation in clarifying the 1994 terrorist bomb destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre (claiming 85 lives), which is worth a paragraph apart. Those tagging Cristina with an image of ideological dogmatism are currently surprised by the way the veep is allowing Economy Minister Sergio Massa to sweep aside some of her most cherished fetishes such as frozen public service pricing, boycott of the IMF and demonising the farming sector but they should not be – the forum of UN General Assemblies was an early witness of her capacity to switch gears in the form of U-turns over Tehran’s responsibility for the AMIA atrocity. Like her husband Néstor in his four years of presidency (2003-2007), she used her New York speeches to pressure Iran through to 2013 (despite having started that year with the controversial memorandum of understanding with Iran which it obviously had yet to ratify because it never did). But in 2014 she was telling the General Assembly that bomb terrorism took second place to the economic wreckage from an unjust world order while in 2015 she defended the agreement with Iran outright, also accusing the recently dead AMIA prosecutor Alberto Nisman of links with vulture funds and foreign intelligence as well as owning bloated overseas accounts.
Running through the previous UN General Assembly appearances between 1983 and 2019, Bignone predictably prioritised the South Atlantic sovereignty claims as the casus belli of the previous year. Radical President Raúl Alfonsín took the UN General Assembly seriously as an international forum and addressed it accordingly rather than playing to any domestic galleries, centring his agenda on global problems such as the Cold War (while also dividing the world into North and South as well as West and East), foreign debt, Middle East tensions, apartheid in South Africa, etc. One reward for his serious approach was to see his Foreign Minister Dante Caputo elected the president of the 43rd UN General Assembly in the last year of his presidency.
Intent on bringing Argentina back into the world, the neo-conservative Peronist Carlos Menem (1989-1999) took this approach a step further – in his UN General Assembly speeches, he not only addressed the international issues of those times (Balkan conflicts, democratic transition in South Africa, etc.) but adopted a proactive approach to UN peace-keeping operations as the best complement for his “carnal relations” with the United States, also backing Washington’s hard line on drugs.
President at the turn of the century when the Millennium Development Goals were set, Radical Fernando de la Rúa toned down the Malvinas claims to a plea for negotiations and skipped the 2001 UN General Assembly with Argentina entering into meltdown, as did caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde in 2002. The Kirchners did attend regularly but were too isolationist and attentive to the domestic electorate to make much international contribution beyond boasting about shaking off the IMF and winks to Russia and China. Macri’s choice of UN Cabinet Chief Susana Malcorra as his first foreign minister already shows a more positive commitment with Argentina’s bid to return to the world his most constant theme, followed by criticism of Venezuela.
And that is all space permits. In summary, an annual ritual which is sometimes the highlight of the week but hardly ever of the year.