“Vulture” Public Diplomacy in Argentina

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

The mysterious death of an Argentine prosecutor named Alberto Nisman has roiled the South American nation since January. Initial reports indicated Nisman had committed suicide, but in the past several months, a panoply of theories about the “real” story behind Nisman’s death have been explored by various segments of Argentine society.

Less than a week before Nisman died in the bathroom of his apartment from a single gunshot wound to the head, the prosecutor had published a detailed report claiming that Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman had made a secret deal with Iranian officials who were allegedly involved in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish community center, described by some as the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history.

Nisman said that the Argentines had offered the Iranians immunity in exchange for closer economic relations between the two countries. An Argentine judge recently declared that the accusations described in Nisman’s report “do not constitute a crime,” but some of his colleagues have contested his decision.

The timing of Nisman’s death is highly suspect, given that he was scheduled to testify regarding his allegations before the congress the next day. Some have theorized that Nisman could have been “suicided,” a term Argentines use to refer to assassinations that are staged as suicides. The suspected motives behind Nisman’s supposed “suiciding” are too various and sundry to concisely summarize here, but most of them are related in one way or another to the prosecutor’s years-long investigation of the AMIA attack.

No one has ever been convicted for the AMIA bombing and the facts of Nisman’s case are still coming out, but this has not stopped politicians from, well, politicizing the issue. Opposition parties have attempted to harness the high-profile story to amplify their anti-corruption message ahead of a general election this year. The governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, a staunch supporter of President Kirchner and himself a presidential aspirant, praised the recent ruling that declared the case against Kirchner insufficient, blaming a “media and political operation” for “the international damage that [Nisman’s] false accusation created.”

President Kirchner herself has also commented quite frequently on the case. In a column published earlier this week on her official website, titled “Everything has to do with everything” Kirchner claimed that her administration had been targeted by “a global modus operandi, which not only severely injures national sovereignty, but also generates international political operations of any type, shape and colour.”

Many commentators tend to dismiss the Argentine government’s official statements on the case as propaganda and conspiracy theories meant to confuse and distract from the unanswered questions about Nisman’s death. The well-respected Argentine journalist Uki Goñi recently characterized President Kirchner as having “gone on the offensive against her critics” with her latest salvo “by claiming she is the target of a conspiracy between US ‘vulture funds,’ Jewish community groups and the prosecutor Alberto Nisman.”

However, in this instance – at least from Kirchner’s point of view – it is these groups that seem to have “gone on the offensive” against her.

As I wrote for Counterpunch last year, when Argentina defaulted on its national debt in 2001 “more than 90% of lenders subsequently agreed to restructuring deals that allowed the country to exchange new bonds for the defaulted ones at a significant loss for the creditors. However, some investment firms labelled ‘vulture funds’ by their critic…bought up Argentine bonds at discount prices, hoping to use the US legal system to force the country to repay their full value.”

Since 2007, a US-based organization financed by the vulture funds called American Task Force Argentina (ATFA) has spent millions of dollars on a campaign to “do whatever we can to get our government and media’s attention focused on what a bad actor Argentina is,” in the words of the group’s executive director. This included funding a series of advertisements in 2013 warning about Argentina’s relationship with Iran.

In 2014, ATFA’s spending on lobbying increased by nearly 50 percent as the legal fight between the vulture funds and Argentina continued to heat up. The Buenos Aires Herald reported last month that Paul Singer, the owner of a prominent vulture fund and one of the major backers of ATFA, is also the second-biggest donor to the pro-Israel group Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), which “launched a website and award to honour the memory of late AMIA special prosecutor Alberto Nisman.”

Goñi reported that a spokesperson for Singer’s hedge fund denied the “allegation that Mr Singer had any contact whatsoever with Mr Nisman” and “Jewish leaders also responded angrily to the president’s claims.” Yet the fact remains that Singer plays a substantial role in supporting organizations that have loudly and consistently challenged Kirchner’s government regarding both the AMIA case as well as the ongoing debt dispute.

This does not excuse the apparently botched investigation of Nisman’s death and the lack of a conclusive resolution to the AMIA case, but these hyperbolic and vitriolic communications campaigns backed by billionaires have needlessly enflamed the situation. In part, the Kirchner government’s hyped-up rhetoric might be a response to the onslaught of the international information campaign waged against the country in recent years, fueled in large part by groups like ATFA.

Fact Check Argentina, At It Again

I made a tweet the other day that my good friends at Fact Check Argentina happened to pick up.

I thought this was pretty funny, seeing as I wrote a piece about ATFA that was pretty harshly critical of their attempts to, in the words of ATFA executive director Robert Raben, “do whatever we can to get our government and media’s attention focused on what a bad actor Argentina is.”

Well, the Buenos Aires Herald reported yesterday that the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sent a letter to ATFA’s main backer, the hedge fund NML Capital, owned by billionaire Paul Singer’s Elliott Management.

“Impeding Argentina from repaying its restructured bondholders and pushing the country into a debt crisis poses risks for the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by its population,” the letter read.

I found it particularly problematic that ATFA appears to be ignorant of the widely-acknowledged link between economic hardship and increased crime and violence. I have personally written many times about this topic on this blog and in other forums.

ATFA even admits that “Argentina’s default is a tragedy and one that is unfortunately being borne by Argentina’s people,” but they claim this suffering is happening “while [Argentina’s] politicians prosper.”

In fact, it’s ATFA’s backers who stand to benefit from forcing the country to pay back the exorbitant amount sought by the so-called vulture fund.