A worrying signal from Argentina

A few weeks into the presidential term of Alberto Fernandez, concerns have been raised about the foreign policy he will pursue in the backdrop of terrorist elements in his country.

Argentina's newly election president Alberto Fernandez and Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Source: Screenshot.
Argentina's newly election president Alberto Fernandez and Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Source: Screenshot.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Writing in this column back in July, I said that if Argentina was going to execute its just-announced campaign to counter the influence of Iran and its Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, in Latin America, then incumbent candidate Mauricio Macri needed to win that country’s presidential election in October.

Macri lost—not a surprising result given that, during his four years in office, he signally failed to deliver Argentines the economic security which they crave, imposing more austerity policies instead.

Now the country has swung in the other direction, and the new president of Argentina is Alberto Fernandez, a veteran Peronist who was elected on a left-wing populist platform promising an end to austerity.

Fernandez’s political orientation has inevitably raised concerns about the foreign policy he will pursue, but those would probably have been less pronounced were it not for the presence in the government of newly elected Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. A bit confusingly, the two are neither married nor related, though Alberto did serve as chief of staff to Cristina during her time as Argentine president from 2007-15. The more pertinent factor to wrap one’s head around, perhaps, is the prospect that Cristina’s former policy of genuflecting to the Iranian regime and its associated terrorist groups will be revived.

Such an outcome would be regrettable for many reasons. Probably the most important one is Argentina’s own history. No other country outside of the Middle East has been as battered by the venom of Iranian-backed terrorism as Argentina has.

In March 1992, Iran and Hezbollah carried out the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. Thirty people died and 242 were wounded in the carnage. The following year, at a meeting of top clerical and intelligence officials in the Iranian city of Mashhad, the regime decided to attack another “Zionist” target in Argentina. In July 1994, using the same method deployed in the embassy attack, an explosives-laden truck driven by a suicide bomber smashed into the AMIA Jewish community center in downtown Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and badly wounding more than 300.

Twenty-five years later, the AMIA bombing and its aftermath have become an emblematic case study of how corruption and extremist politics can destroy the search for justice for the victims of terrorism. No one has ever been prosecuted for the bombing, despite the fact that the Iranian and Lebanese operatives behind it were identified by Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency, more than a decade ago. In the meantime, the one Argentine public official determined to bring the Iranians to justice—federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman—became, in the eyes of many, the 86th victim of the AMIA bombing when he was assassinated in his apartment in Buenos Aires in January 2015.

This is the background against which Alberto Fernandez’s decisions about foreign policy and national security will be judged. What will greatly magnify any criticism is the underlying suspicion that his goal in part will be to shield the vice president from scrutiny concerning her alleged role in Nisman’s murder, which occurred just hours before the federal prosecutor was due to appear before the Argentine Congress to disclose a formal complaint against Kirchner for colluding with the Iranian regime.

In public remarks last week, AMIA’s leader, Ariel Eichbaum, pointedly went out of his way to praise the vanquished Macri for his decision to add Hezbollah to the country’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations—an announcement timed to coincide with the AMIA-bombing commemoration ceremonies this past July. “All free nations in the region must continue strengthening the work to condemn terrorism, denounce their actions and eliminate their sources of financing,” in remarks aimed at Fernandez.

The fact that a leader of the Jewish establishment felt the need to deliver these comments in the first place suggests a broader disquiet over what the true priorities of a Fernandez administration are. One significant indication of its direction emerged over the weekend, when Fernandez hosted a meeting in Buenos Aires of the Grupo de Puebla (“Group of the People”), a newly formed regional grouping that includes Mexico, Uruguay and other left-oriented governments in Latin America. Launched by Mexico’s left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in July, the “People’s Group” is deliberately intended to rival the center-right “Lima Group” of countries that includes Colombia, Guatemala and, for the moment, Argentina.

The dramatic divide in the worldview of these two groupings has been on display in two current regional crises. In Venezuela, one group loudly supports the ongoing dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, while the other has declared its backing for Juan Guaidó, the speaker of the democratically elected National Assembly who declared himself the country’s interim president earlier this year. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, the resignation on Nov. 10 of Evo Morales—who occupied the office of president for the last 14 years—was similarly cheered as victory for democracy by the “Lima Group” and denounced as a “coup” by the “Group of the People.”

In both these examples, Fernandez took the side of authoritarian left-wing leaders against their democratic opponents. Maduro, Morales, Cristina Kirchner and the late Hugo Chávez are among the Latin American leaders to have enabled and encouraged Iran’s exploitation of Latin America as an illicit financing hub for its terrorist networks. A few weeks into his presidential term, Alberto Fernandez is sending the signal that this is another leadership group he intends to join.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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