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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 10-09-2022 02:00

Something is knocking on the door

As was to be expected, the government wasted no time in trying to take advantage of what had happened last week outside Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's apartment building in Recoleta.

The initial shock caused by the attempted assassination of the country’s most powerful politician by an individual with a taste for Nazi emblems soon wore off. It was replaced by fears that the Kirchnerites – some of whom look back with nostalgia to the days when Montoneros, a terrorist grouping which acquired a leftist colouring after starting life on the extreme right, was a force to be reckoned with – would exploit the alarm it had caused by making a last-ditch effort to establish a dictatorship on the Venezuelan model. Instead of pointing out that murderous cranks with strange political ideas can be found almost everywhere, as the Japanese learned a few weeks ago when one such shot dead the former prime minister Shinzo Abe, the government decided to take full advantage of the incident in the hope it would help it reverse its slide towards oblivion.

Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones which make it easy to record and then broadcast immediately whatever is going on nearby, the world soon knew in considerable detail what had happened that Thursday night when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, surrounded by devotees, was signing autographs outside the building in which she has a flat and was suddenly confronted by man wielding a gun.

However, instead of clarifying matters, the information that quickly became available only encouraged doubts. Was the vice-president really the target of an assassination attempt, or was it all a bit of street theatre staged to rally the troops and give her sagging approval rating a much-needed boost? Large numbers of people, among them reporters attached to foreign news networks, preferred the latter explanation, which is why headlines abroad often included words like “apparent” and “alleged.” In their view, everything seemed too unlikely to be real.

Given the circumstances, such scepticism was understandable. After all, high-ranking politicians like Cristina are supposed to be protected by dozens of burly bodyguards who are willing to go to any lengths to save them from harm. Why, then, did none of the heavies pounce on the nasty-looking bloke who waved a pistol inches from the vice-president’s smiling face? Over a week has gone by, but we still do not know the answer to that rather important question. Perhaps they all assumed Fernando Sabag Montiel was just an over-enthusiastic fan liable to express his feelings by firing shots into the air as they do in the Middle East or, and this is what seems to be the consensus, they were simply not up to the job.

When in Buenos Aires, Cristina depends on the Federal Police for security because, it would appear, she distrusts the metropolitan force which she thinks answers to followers of her arch-enemy Mauricio Macri who, as all devout Kirchnerites know, is a very wicked man, and also on members of La Cámpora, an organisation that is sometimes described as her Pretorian Guard, an elite Roman outfit which, as the years went by, got into the habit of murdering emperors who proved reluctant to see things its way and, on occasion, offering the job to the highest bidder, but it may be presumed that those who make the comparison see it as the embodiment of selfless loyalty.

As the days passed, the notion that Cristina and her supporters had faked an assassination attempt in order to drum up support and provide them with a pretext to take repressive measures, found fewer buyers, if only because it is widely agreed that the Kirchnerites are such a ham-handed lot that they would be incapable of pulling off anything so complicated. And though it was accepted that Sabag Montiel, perhaps with a little help from his girlfriend, really had tried to kill the vice-president, just what the Federal Police had been up to remained unclear. Did a cop wipe clean the would-be assassin’s mobile phone in order to deprive investigators of useful information? And why did President Alberto Fernández suspect, as he made clear in his televised address to the nation, that Sabag Montiel ran the risk of dying in custody before he could be properly interrogated?

As was to be expected, the government wasted no time in trying to take advantage of what had happened. From its point of view, warning people that there were murderous “lone wolves” out there who at any moment could assassinate a prominent figure for incomprehensible motives would have served no useful purpose, so Kirchnerites decided to pin the blame on the opposition, a hostile press and uppity members of the Judiciary who insist that not even Cristina is entitled to be above the law. Predictably, the insinuation that media outlets should be censored to prevent them from spewing out “hate” provoked outrage. In addition to being incompatible with freedom of expression, those alarmed by what some government spokespeople have in mind thought it downright hypocritical, given the Kirchnerites’ notorious willingness to say extremely unpleasant things about their adversaries.

If Alberto and the rest of them are to be believed, day after day they are subjected to verbal onslaughts which are far fiercer than anything their counterparts elsewhere in the world have to endure. Is that true? In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and other “Tory scum” would disagree, as would Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the United States, and in France, Emmanuel Macron. Sensitive Argentine politicians may find it hard to understand, but in those countries being the target of imaginative and sometimes obscene epithets is part of the job. Like it or not, democracy depends on the politicians’ ability to put up with such pressures without demanding that the police and then the courts, accompanied by pro-government, “militants” silence their critics. As Harry Truman once put it, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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