Argentina’s cry for justice

The mysterious death of state prosecutor Alberto Nisman has brought Argentineans out to the streets, but the country has a long history of unsolved crimes.

Des manifestants exigent que justice soit faite, devant le centre communautaire juif AMIA à Buenos Aires, mercredi 21 janvier (photo credit: REUTERS)
Des manifestants exigent que justice soit faite, devant le centre communautaire juif AMIA à Buenos Aires, mercredi 21 janvier
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BUENOS AIRES – It is said that two centuries ago, when Argentina gained its independence, it rained. Replications of the event show those celebrating protecting themselves from the downpour with makeshift umbrellas.
It also rained in 1994, just a few days after the July 18 bombing of the Jewish community center – the Argentinean Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) – when thousands thronged the streets to demand justice. The “umbrella demonstration” was how it was referred to at the time.
Umbrellas were on display Wednesday as tens of thousands of well-behaved demonstrators braved unrelenting rains on their way from Argentina’s Congress building to the Plaza de Mayo, the site commemorating the start of the country’s revolution that in 1816 led to independence. They were participating in a solidarity march marking 30 days since state prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment, after he had accused President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of plotting to cover up his investigation of the1994 bombing.
From time to time they broke the silence to sing Argentina’s national anthem: “May the laurels be eternal that we knew how to win; Let us live crowned with glory or swear to die gloriously.”
They also shouted “Nunca mas,” no more, and “Justicia,” justice.
One of the demonstrators, who called himself Donald, said that he and his wife had taken off from work early and driven an hour to take part in the demonstrations, which began at 6 p.m.; he was sure the demonstration would have an impact.
“Look at all these people, look at all this energy. All of this cannot simply be ignored,” he said.
“This government has made too many mistakes, whether it be the failure of the economy, the corruption or its deal with Iran,” he added, referring to Buenos Aires’s decision in 2013 to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Republic, according to which the two governments would set up a “truth commission.”
That President Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman would seek to cooperate with Iran, the country thought by Nisman to be the mastermind behind the AMIA bombing, was widely derided as an attempt to align Argentina with a state that openly supports terrorism.
Despite Argentineans’ genuine desire for change, clearly evident on the streets of Buenos Aires this week, corruption is so deeply ingrained in society and incompetence so widespread that it will take more than a single demonstration, no matter how emotionally moving – and Wednesday’s march was truly moving – to reverse trends dating back decades, even centuries.
The mystery surrounding the death of Nisman is a case in point. With each passing day, new and more lurid revelations have come to light. Most recently, it has emerged that the forensic investigators who arrived at Nisman’s high-rise apartment in a posh neighborhood of southern Buenos Aires did not take even the most basic procedural precautions. As many as 50 people were said to have crowded into the small apartment during the gathering of evidence; those present ate and drank. A woman named Natalie Fernandez testified that she used the toilet in the bathroom where Nisman’s body was found before the body was removed. Other testimony claimed that large quantities of blood were splattered on the wall of one of the halls.
If even some of these claims and others turn out to be true, there is little hope that Argentina’s police will ever succeed in determining whether Nisman took his own life, as the initial reports indicated based on the circumstances of his death, or whether he was a victim of foul play.
And while Wednesday’s march was ostensibly a show of support for Nisman, the prosecutor’s legacy has become increasingly tarnished.
Santiago O’Donnell, a local journalist, has argued that Nisman was not an exemplary prosecutor, let alone a hero.
Based on documents that emerged from WikiLeaks, O’Donnell discovered that Nisman relied heavily on information coming from American and Israeli intelligence, which he was fed by an obscure Argentinean intelligence agent. He regularly updated the US Embassy in Argentina on the developments of the investigation, and seemed to be directed by the embassy to identify the Iranians as the guilty party.
In parallel, Nisman was encouraged to drop alternative tracks of investigation such as a possible Syria connection or, more significantly, the involvement of the local Intelligence Secretariat, known here by its former acronym SIDE.
Many here are convinced that whether or not Iran, Hezbollah or some other terrorist state or organization are behind the AMIA bombing, members of SIDE had to also have provided intelligence.
Yet after over 10 years of inquiries, advantageous press coverage and a lavishly financed investigative unit, contended O’Donnell, Nisman had little to show in the way of proof that Tehran and Hezbollah were involved in the AMIA attack; moreover, he had made no real investigation into SIDE’s connection.
Argentina has a long history of horrific crimes that have gone unsolved. Under the rule of a fascist military junta, between 1976 and 1983 thousands of Argentineans disappeared, never to resurface, as part of an anti-Communist witch hunt. They are known as the desaparecidos, or “the disappeared.”
Many of the culprits have gone unpunished, and the fate of many of the victims is unknown to this day.
So while protesters waved placards demanding “truth” and “justice,” there is little room for optimism.
And when they carried posters stating “I am Nisman,” they were not particularly convincing.
What about the Jews?
Where does this leave Argentina’s Jewish community, which at over 180,000 is the biggest in South America and one of the biggest in the world? Ostensibly, Wednesday’s march had many Jewish themes. First was the fact that Nisman was Jewish, though his former wife – and therefore, his two daughters – are not.
Second, according to the Jewish laws of mourning, the 30th day of a Jew’s death. has a unique meaning.
Furthermore, there is the fact that Jews were disproportionately represented among the desperacidos.
And of course, Nisman’s investigation focused on the bombing of AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of demonstrators were not Jewish.
The few thousand Jews who began their march from the rebuilt AMIA building were quickly swallowed up in the masses of humanity that thronged the streets leading from the Congress building to Plaza del Mayo.
That neither the Nisman affair nor the AMIA bombing are seen as exclusively “Jewish” matters, but first and foremost as Argentinean problems that must be solved on the national level, testifies to the high level of Jews’ integration into broader Argentinean society.
Still, it would be untrue to claim that anti-Semitism does not exist in Argentina. The Peron regime of the 1950s had close ties with Nazis; Adolf Eichmann was given refuge in Argentina before he was kidnapped by the Mossad. To this day, anti-Semitism is said to be common amount the old elites. Waldo Wolff, vice president of the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas, said that after nearly every one of his TV appearances, he receives anti-Semitic messages on Twitter.
In another instance, Damian Pachter, a Jewish Argentinean journalist who served in the IDF, was accused on Argentinean TV of being a Mossad agent. Pachter fled the country a month ago at the advice of sources close to the local intelligence community, after being the first to report that Nisman had been found shot in his room. Pachter’s early report might have made it more difficult to present Nisman’s death as a suicide, if indeed it was not.
And just over a week ago posters were put up in a Buenos Aires neighborhood reading, “A good Jews is a dead Jew,” showing a picture of Nisman.
Yet according to Wolff, anti-Semitism in Argentina is nowhere near the levels of Europe.
In any case, we should not expect a large aliya from there anytime soon. But Argentina’s Jews, like all Argentineans, will have to continue to live with a reality in which wild conspiracy theories of political subterfuge and corruption are taken seriously – because they so often turn out to be true.
Wednesday’s march, impressive as it was, is unlikely to change this.
Just as umbrellas appear to be a recurring theme in key events in Argentina’s history, so too do corruption, intrigue and incompetence.