Since the arrival of the Kirchner phenomenon to Argentinean politics in 2003, there has been a sense that history has begun again. The late Nestor Kirchner served as president of the country from 2003 to 2007 when his wife Cristina was elected to the presidency.
The Kirchner era is not merely seen as another presidential term that has brought change. It is considered by many of its supporters as an era of major change that is almost revolutionary. Kirchner's popularity is helped by the fact that Argentina has seen economic growth mostly thanks to the international price of Argentinean commodities; mainly soy.
However, it is Kirchner's policies of populist redistribution and rejection of Argentina's political past that makes the government revolutionary. Yet, such rejection is only partial since old practices have prevailed in the Kirchner era.
On the one hand, Kirchner reopened the trials against the military involved in human rights violations during the dirty war (1977-1983). Thus, the amnesty given by former president, Carlos Menem, to those who killed close to 30,000 people, kidnapped and stole the victims' babies, and tortured thousands of people, was revoked. This is a major historical vindication that made the Kirchner government popular among much of the middle class, human rights groups and most intellectuals.
By the same token, Kirchner's redistribution policies and the government's populist discourse that claims it represents the poor and the oppressed have made the Kirchners real heroes among the lower classes.
On the other hand, the Kirchners have behaved like dictators; intimidating the business sector every time there were price increases; attacking the media that criticized them and taking steps to destroy them while buying and co-opting media outlets they thought were supportive of the government. By the same token, the Kirchners not only treated the opposition unkindly but also used the prerogatives of executive power to make decisions while skipping public debate and scorning dissent. A case in point was when the government unilaterally decided to impose a tax on the rural sector; a sector considered to be traditionally an ally of the most conservative, right-wing governments. Likewise, private businesses have been forced, via threats, to reduce their prices and very often have been blamed for economic hardships such as inflation.
Without judging the merit or intentions of the Kirchner's policies, whether they are economic or human rights oriented, the Kirchner government has generated an atmosphere of bullying, anger, revenge, and intolerance. Such an atmosphere is against the spirit of democracy and worse it is not consistent with the past the Kirchner's claim to reject. Such a past is rooted mainly in the political culture of the Peronist Party, which aggressively appeals to the masses and tends to deny the legitimacy of those who do not stand by its side.
These old- new practices have not prevented the Kirchner government from being supported by many left-wing intellectuals who welcomed the Kirchners as revolutionary. That was the kind of government they were waiting for. Moreover, these intellectuals have justified the Kirchner's crackdown on the media, despite the fact that they themselves benefitted from a free press for the past 27 years.
Thus, the Kirchner era has been defined by a number of supporting intellectuals in Argentina as a new era of recovery of new spaces and new discourse. They have denounced the fact "that criticism of the Kirchner government was leading to a climate of destitution and intolerance". Furthermore, these intellectuals attack the media for "irresponsibly attacking judges, congress and the government" and they have accused it of "taking away the wisdom of the experts" (like themselves) and "exploiting the emotions of those who suffer".
Moreover, these intellectuals have accused the media of "raising a daily voice and influencing people's minds despite the fact that the people did not elect it". Indeed, the Kirchners tried to make the life of the opposing media impossible while rewarding those who supported them.
These intellectuals mostly gathered within a group called "Open Letter" which is made up of journalists, artists and academicians. The group includes among many others, a well known public intellectual, a well known philosopher who teaches at the University of Buenos Aires and the University of Maryland, and, a journalist who made his career by denouncing the corruption in the government of former Argentinean president, Carlos Menem. The group is both nationalist, populist and opposes neo-liberalism and the "subordinate role" of Argentina in a globalized economy. It has attacked the rural sector, and even the anti-Cuban establishment in Miami.
Hence, it is no wonder that leaders like Hugo Chavez are not only heroes for the Kirchners but also for these intellectuals, many of whom blasted the anti-democratic practices of Argentinean dictatorships but have been perfectly comfortable with Chavez's everyday violation of democracy and increasing repression of his people.
In their writings these intellectuals praise the virtues of Chavez's social justice policies. In 2004, one of them was sent as an observer to the Venezuelan recall referendum. Of course, the objectivity of such a person is questionable as he wrote about having been in a party organized by Hugo Chavez on the eve of the referendum.
The Kirchner's support for Chavez was not merely because Chavez helped bail out Argentina financially even though this is the oft used excuse rationalizing the Argentinean government's attitude. The truth of the matter is that Argentinian rejection of U.S -promoted neo-liberal policies is deeply felt and Chavez's anti-American discourse fascinates the genuflected intellectual circle of the Kirchners' supporters and, of course, the Kirchners themselves. This explains the fact that Kirchner allowed Chavez to hold an anti-U.S. demonstration during the visit of President George W. Bush to Argentina.
Yet, despite the Kirchner's anti-American rhetoric, Argentina did not go along with everything Chavez did. One such example is Argentina's policy towards Iran.
Nestor Kirchner appealed to all those who were not pleased with the government of President Menem (1989-2000). One of those groups was the Argentinean Jewish community. The Jewish community felt that the investigation of the terrorist attacks against the Embassy of Israel and the Jewish Community Center that took place in 1992 and 1994 were defective. Some had suspicions that the Menem government, itself, assisted in the undermining of the investigation.
Thus, Kirchner embraced the cause of the Jewish community and as a result openly accused Iran of carrying out the lethal attacks. It required Interpol to extradite key Iranian officials including people who worked at the Iranian embassy during those years; like major Hezbollah terrorist, Imad Mujniah, (later assassinated in Lebanon; presumably by Israelis) and high Iranian government officials such as former Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and seven members of his cabinet. Most of these people are either high level or former high level government officials and therefore, the possibility of extradition was highly unlikely. One was arrested in Great Britain but released shortly afterwards. Contrary to Chavez, the Kirchner government denounced Iran's nuclear ambitions and considers Iran a terrorist state. Likewise, unlike Brazil, Argentina has refrained from seeing Iran as part of a South-South alliance.
However, according to wikileaks the U.S Embassy in Buenos Aires has suspicions regarding the behavior of the prosecutor in the case of the terrorist attack on AMIA. The prosecutor ordered the arrest of former President Carlos Menem and the judge that investigated the case under his government. The U.S embassy and some others estimated that these arrests were politically motivated and that no evidence was presented. The prosecutor was described in the memo as an ambitious man who responded to the wishes of the then presidential chief of staff. As a result the U.S. embassy seemed to have lost confidence in the prosecutor.
Most recently a local paper published a story according to which Argentina had offered Iran (in a meeting with President Bashar Assad of Syria) to stop investigations into the bombing. According to the story, the Argentinean government pointed out that it is interested in deepening economic relations with Iran.
The Israeli government asked the Argentinean government to respond to this. Strangely enough, Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman first chose not to answer. Later he responded that "he would not dignify the report with a comment, and that he does not have to give a third country an accounting of Argentina's relations with Iran."
This answer was shocking given the fact that Israel is not merely a third country but a country whose embassy was allegedly bombed by the Iranians.
Even though Timmerman later fully denied these allegations his reaction was far from convincing.
On regional matters, Argentina supports regional integration of Latin American nations. The intellectual and journalistic circle that surrounds Kirchner probably aspires to reduce U.S. influence in the region. However, the Kirchner government has not been as clear as Brazil in terms of their willingness to reduce U.S influence or take initiatives that openly challenge the U.S as Brazil did in trying to cut an independent deal with Iran on the nuclear issue. Nor does Argentina openly question the American government's ability to lead (as Brazil's former president, Lula Da Silva, did in regard to the U.S Administration's role in the peace process).
Kirchner has, at times, used harsh rhetoric against the U.S. As a result of the investigation carried out by a Miami prosecutor on the alleged transference of money from Hugo Chavez to Cristina Kirchner's electoral campaign, there have been tensions between the two countries. Most recently, foreign minister Timmerman resuscitated old accusations that U.S police training programs were used to torture Argentineans. Then, the government proceeded to seize equipment sent by the U.S to the Argentinean police claiming that the cargo contained "from weapons to different drugs, amongst others, various doses of morphine". The U.S denies those charges. The incident looks like a demagogic show orchestrated by the Argentinean government.
On issues related to commerce, exports to Argentina represents about 0.5 of the total U.S exports and 0.24% of its total imports in the year 2007. That year Argentina received only 0.4% of total U.S. investments. Most of these investments go to Mexico and Brazil. Fairly recently, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela, stated that there is no legal security for business investments in Argentina. Likewise, foreign investors have been driven away as a result of Argentina's lack of credibility and the government's alleged manipulation of numbers on economic growth and rates of inflation.
Argentina, however, looks at China and India as possible vehicles that could help the country play an important role in the global economy. Trade with China has increased substantially in the last 10 years. Prof. Evan Ellis, from the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, said that in 2009, China and Argentina formalized a $10.2 billion debt swap. Chinese companies have made significant investments and purchases in such Argentinean sectors as energy, exploration of minerals, urea production, soybean, and port construction. Argentina also purchased military vehicles from China; cooperates with China in space while Chinese telecommunications companies have a significant presence in Argentina.
As Argentina's commercial and technological cooperation with China continues to grow, the Kirchner government continues to vocally oppose a free trade agreement with the U.S. This is primarily due to the high price of Argentine commodities. Thus, Argentina's products have become less dependent on the subsidies the U.S government provides its farmers. However, these policies could also be motivated by the instinctive anti-Americanism of Cristina Kirchner and her entourage.
Although Argentina is not a country the U.S. can count on to be a stabilizing factor against Chavism or the extreme left, it can not be considered an enemy either.
Argentina's rejection of Iran is an asset that the U.S cannot afford to give up on; particularly when Brazil has supported the Islamic Republic under the government of former president, Jose Inazio Lula Da Silva. However, Argentina is not credible when it comes to the war against terrorism. Not only was Argentina's AMIA's case prosecutor's credibility put in doubt but also all the request for the extradition of Iranians sounds like a political move because none of the people whose extradition was requested is likely to be apprehended. It was an easy way out for a government that did not want to deal with pressures over a case that Argentinean law enforcement and justice system could not solve. In addition, Kirchner's identification with third world anti-American views and its admiration for Chavez, puts in doubt Argentina's sincerity and long-run sustainability of its current anti-Iran policy. Reports about an Argentinean-Iran deal at the expense of a serious investigation into the terrorist attacks against the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community Center in Buenos Aires might be an indication that Argentina cannot be trusted.
Kirchner and her circle see themselves as revolutionaries and have shown support for Chavez. Yet, the Kirchner government has not established domination over Argentinean society as Chavez has and it is not even part of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). Democracy in Argentina is stronger than in Venezuela and the president has faced major setbacks such as in the 2009 congressional mid-term elections where President Kirchner lost control of Congress. This loss included Kirchner's husband (now deceased) who went from being a popular president to losing the election for a congressional seat.
Argentinean democracy should not be underestimated. It works. Elections are not fraudulent despite the authoritarian instinct of Ms. Kirchner. Even though Argentina is far from being a reliable international partner the U.S should continue its efforts to reach out to Argentina.
While Argentina and Brazil's attempt at creating regional independence should not be discouraged, China's heavy investment in Argentina could have negative geopolitical consequences as the U.S. loses leverage throughout the continent, both as an investor and as a buyer. This will most likely continue to make China into a major political player in an area where the U.S has traditionally had a significant presence. In addition, the euphoric perception that the U.S is in decline could create an adverse atmosphere for American geopolitical influence in the region and even in other parts of the world.