Attempted Assassination of Argentina’s Vice President Highlights Political Division
On September 1, 2022, Argentinian Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was the target of an assassination attempt while returning to her personal residence in Buenos Aires after overseeing a Senate session. As the Vice President was greeting supporters, a young man approached her and pulled the trigger of a semi-automatic pistol inches from her face. Though the gun was loaded with five bullets, the chamber was empty and the gun failed to fire. The perpetrator was immediately taken into custody.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the most prominent—and polarizing—political figure in Argentina, serving two consecutive presidential terms between 2008 and 2015. Before this, she rose to prominence as the nation’s First Lady from 2003 to 2007 when her now-deceased husband Néstor Kirchner served as president. Together, the two helmed an eponymous political movement, “Kirchnerism”, to promote progressive populist ideals rooted in left-wing Peronist ideology of the 1950s. In 2019, she was elected vice president alongside the center-left President Alberto Fernández under the Peronist coalition “Frente de Todos” (Everyone’s Front). The two bear no relation to one another despite sharing a surname.
Although Fernández himself was elected president, many Argentines feel that Vice President Fernández de Kirchner is the face of political power in the nation. The two have frequently clashed over Fernández’ support of economic liberalism, a policy which Kirchnerism stands staunchly against. A nationwide poll conducted in September 2021 asked Frente de Todos primary voters who they perceived to be the leader of their party—62.5% responded with Fernández de Kirchner against 20.1% for Fernández. The vice president’s thinly-veiled jab at Fernández in an April 2022 address adequately summarizes their tense relationship: “That they put the [presidential] sash on you and give you the cane, believe me, does not mean you have the power.”
During her years in the public spotlight, Fernández de Kirchner has faced an array of legal troubles and controversies, namely due to her straightforward manner of speech and strained relationship with the media. Among the most notable is her dubious role in the death of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor in charge of investigating possible foreign involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing, a devastating terrorist attack on Buenos Aires’ Jewish community. Nisman was scheduled to appear in court and relay his findings on January 19, 2015, but was found dead of an apparent suicide in his home just one day before. He had publicly spoken out against Fernández de Kirchner, stating that his report included evidence that would supposedly incriminate the then-president and numerous members of her cabinet in an alleged cover-up of the incident, even including a drafted warrant for her arrest. Fernández de Kirchner was indicted for treason by a federal court in December 2017 for allegedly participating in this cover-up but was acquitted in October 2021. Later investigations and an official report released in 2017 would prove Nisman’s death to be a homicide, although Fernández de Kirchner maintains the stance that it was a suicide.
While this particular case against Fernández de Kirchner is closed, heated debate over the possible validity of Nisman’s accusations continues throughout the nation. Argentina is heavily divided by Kirchnerism to the extent that mainstream political ideologies are distinguished by including the letter “K” or the phrase “anti-K”. This political schism was deepened even further by a 2013 political scandal referred to as “The Route of K-Money”, in which independent news agency Periodismo para todos (“Journalism for everyone”) analyzed Fernández de Kirchner and her husband’s tax returns and discovered a substantial amount of undeclared funds. The lengthy investigation concluded that the two, along with several political allies, had conspired with a close business associate, Lázaro Baéz, to establish public works projects and through him divert roughly $55 million USD to tax havens in Switzerland, Panama, and Seychelles. A federal case was opened as a result and saw a total of 22 high-ranking Kirchnerist officials charged with corruption, with Baéz in particular receiving the maximum sentence of 12 years for money laundering in February 2021.
On August 22, 2022, just eight days before the attempt on Fernández de Kirchner’s life, federal prosecutor Diego Luciani conducted an hours-long broadcast on the nation’s eminent news channel and formally requested that the Vice President be charged with crimes of illicit association and aggravated fraudulent administration for her alleged role in the “K-Money” scheme. These charges carry a maximum of 16 years if convicted, though Luciani only called for 12. He additionally requested that she may never be allowed to hold public office again as a part of her sentence. The central accusation is that over the span of twelve years, Néstor Kirchner, and later Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, awarded a series of public works grants to improve the infrastructure of the sparsely inhabited Santa Cruz, Argentina’s second-to-least populous province. About 80-85% of these grants—51 total—were given to Austral Contrucciones, a contracting company formed by Lázaro Baéz, a close business associate of the couple. Of these 51 contracts, 24 were never completed, and the other 27 involved major cost overruns that Luciani claims the three personally benefited from. Beyond Fernández de Kirchner herself, Luciani asked that Baéz face additional money laundering charges alongside several other Kirchnerist politicians.
In an already politically fractionate nation suffering from a massive economic crisis, this announcement from a high-ranking legal official had an immediate effect on both supporters and opponents of the current government. Within hours, hundreds of anti-Kirchnerist protestors had gathered around the vice president's home in the neighborhood of Recoleta, Buenos Aires, to call for her resignation and were met with an equal number of counter-protestors defending her innocence, calling Luciani’s claims politically motivated. The demonstration remained constant as both parties camped outside her home, with violence erupting on the fourth day. Protestors clashed with police on August 27, ending with fourteen officers injured and four civilians detained.
The words of both Fernández de Kirchner and Fernández did little to calm either side’s fervor. In a virtual response to prosecutor Luciani’s allegations against her, the Vice President addressed her supporters directly: “This is not a trial of Cristina, this is a trial of Peronism … They are not coming for me, they are coming for you”. President Fernández gave a similarly inflammatory statement just days later: “Nisman committed suicide, I hope that prosecutor Luciani does not do the same.”
Investigators believe that 35-year-old Fernando Sabag Montiel, aided by his girlfriend Brenda Uliarte, attempted to take the life of Fernández de Kirchner for political reasons, as the two had appeared in a television interview just weeks earlier criticizing her welfare programs. However, a national survey conducted on September 13 showed that 58.4% of Argentines believe that this was an orchestrated event rather than a legitimate attack, a testament to worsening division. President Fernández declared the next day a federal holiday, calling on citizens to gather outside the presidential office in a display of support for the Vice President; this decree was ignored by several opposition-led provinces.
It is still unknown how this event will affect the prosecution of Fernández de Kirchner, with the Vice President and allies claiming this assassination attempt came as a direct result of these proceedings and the surrounding media frenzy, referring to them as a “media-judicial firing squad”. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro proposed that Argentina pass anti-hate speech laws similar to those in Venezuela but was met with fierce backlash for their limitations on freedom of expression.
Fernández de Kirchner spoke before the court on September 23, denouncing the charges against her as “lies, slander, and defamation”. Nonetheless, public opinion shows that the majority of Argentines believe her to be guilty. With Frente de Todos falling only marginally in the polls, it remains decisively unclear what the outcome of next year’s politically fraught elections will be and which direction they will lead the nation in.