More than a quarter century after the military dictatorship fell and Argentina returned to democracy in 1983, the country suffers from a climate of fear and censorship that permeates certain aspects of public and private life.
This climate is largely imperceptible to many people, especially tourists, expats and others who don’t pay close attention to politics or current events. For these people, and for those who don’t read the newspapers or watch political talk shows, life simply goes on as usual, as it should. People go to work, go out to eat, attend concerts and live as usual.
But for some who work in business, in government or in journalism, the atmosphere of fear and censorship is a tangible reality that can affect life in significant ways.
For journalists, the climate affects our ability to speak with sources and quote them on the record. Opposition to the Kirchners and their policies is both deep and pervasive. The overwhelming majority of private sector CEOs, finance officers, corporate spokespeople, and diplomats speak negatively about the Kirchners off the record. People say one thing in private, another in public. To a vastly lesser degree, this kind of thing happens in other countries, especially with diplomats, who are famously tight-lipped.
But in Argentina, concern about government retaliation is so great that many officials, including even some – mainly lower-ranking – government officials themselves, don’t dare to say anything that could possibly be interpreted negatively by President Cristina Fernández or her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.
“If you go against them, they’ll hit you back hard,” the chief finance officer of large company said recently. “They’ll send the AFIP (the national tax collection agency) after you. It’s not worth it.”
The government repeatedly bashes anyone who dares to question the wisdom of its policies. It has even threatened jail-time for business leaders who publicly challenge it. One of the only business leaders in Argentina who has repeatedly stood his ground and questioned the value of government policy is Shell Argentina President Juan Jose Aranguren. His reward: Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno sought to put him in jail and Kirchner called on Argentines to boycott Shell.
As news organizations including my own reported, the boycott against Shell gasoline stations took place in March 2005, after Shell raised its gasoline prices. Government-backed protesters surrounded Shell stations, leading the company to cut prices. The government then started pursuing a 1974 “Supply Law” and government officials have repeatedly fined Shell for allegedly failing to comply with the law. The government also sought arrest warrants for Aranguren and other Shell executives. Aranguren never went to jail, but other business leaders remember his plight, and cite it as a reason not to cross the government.
Kirchner said he wasn’t going after Shell but was rather trying to protect consumers from price gouging and greedy capitalism. Moreover, government officials repeatedly have denied that the administration specifically targets individuals or companies for simply voicing their opinions. In addition, President Fernández recently said she would be the last person on the planet to silence “even just one voice.”
Still, the Shell episode and similar events before it, allowed for the emergence of a climate of fear and censorship that now dominates corporate communication. It’s not a de jure, government-imposed, legally mandated censorship. That clearly doesn’t exist. Instead, what reigns is a kind of self-imposed censorship, where influential people say one thing in private and another – if they say anything at all – in public. This has crimped public debate in Argentina, leaving the arena of ideas open only to academics, analysts, and opposition political leaders who don’t fear criticizing the government. Columnists and newspaper editorials also question government policy. But business leaders, especially the most powerful, influential and respected ones, are almost universally absent from the debate. Such leaders often insist that even the most subtle, innocuous statements must be off the record. But it’s not just businessmen who insist on this. Sometimes it’s also government officials who fear saying anything that might be considered less than laudatory.
A recent survey by Management & Fit put the President’s approval rating at 20.1%, the lowest of any politician in Argentina except for Néstor Kirchner himself, whose rating was almost a half point lower at 19.7%. Those numbers might be even lower among businessmen, but you won’t hear much if anything about this from them publicly. Even the government’s own spokesmen and ministries sometimes release “official” press statements that are, in reality, off the record. This allows government officials to say a certain thing one day and then deny it the next.
But cracks slowly seem to be appearing in this figurative wall of fear and self-imposed censorship. In recent weeks, more CEOs have questioned government policies. Moreover, key Argentine celebrities, especially TV entertainer Marcelo Tinelli, have questioned the verbal and physical violence that have become prominent.
Tinelli described former government official, protest leader and de facto government spokesman, Luis D’Elía, as a person who “has made a cult out of violence.” D’Elía is the protest leader who, after attending a meeting at the Casa Rosasa last year, stormed the Plaza de Mayo, punching his way through crowds of men, women and children who were peacefully protesting farm taxes. He’s also the person who last year had this to say in a radio interview with the late talk show host Fernando Peña:
Peña: “We have a colorful segment – a black segment because we’re going to talk to Luis D’Elía.”
Peña: Hola, Luis. How are you doing?
D’Elía: How are doing, you piece of shit?
Peña: Piece of shit? How are you doing, you piece of shit? What a nice way of starting this interview.
D’Elía: I’m doing great (bárbaro). The score is now 1-to-0. All right, go ahead.
Peña: Tell me what happened Tuesday night? Why did you hit people? Let’s see if you’re willing to tell the truth.
D’Elía: Because I hate them. I hate the damned oligarchy. I hate white people. I hate you, Peña. I hate you. I hate your money. I hate your house. I hate your cars. I hate your history. I hate people like you who defend an unjust and unfair country. I hate the fucking Argentine oligarchy. I hate them with all the strength of my heart. You understand? I hate them. I’m telling you clearly. I hate them. Sarmiento said it in 1880: the blood of Gaucho’s shouldn’t be spared. You would say that same thing about black people (la gente negra). For you, and the shit like you, we are nothing but shit, crap, trash. You are an asshole, a servant of our fucking oligarchy. You pretend to be a transgressor but you don’t have the balls to put up with what we put up with. You live in San Isidro (a wealthy Buenos Aires suburb). And do you know where I’m talking to you from? From Laferrére (a ghetto)…I hate all of you. I hate the Argentine upper-class that has done so much damage and killed so many people in the name of profit.”
When the farmers and their supporters filled the Plaza de Mayo, they did so to question government economic policy. Their act was basically a manifestation of free speech. They dared to do what Argentine business leaders do not. They openly questioned, even protested, public policy. But their protest – their free speech – was censored by D’Elía’s fists.
It wasn’t clear if President Fernández or one of her cabinet members personally directed D’Elía to storm the plaza and silence the farmers. But it was clear that neither she nor anyone in her cabinet prevented D’Elía from savaging the rights of peaceful Argentines to speak freely that night. Indeed, two days after D’Elía drove fellow Argentines from the plaza, Fernández invited him to appear near her during a nationalized televised speech at Parque Norte. One possible conclusion from this is that the Kirchners not only supported D’Elía’s violent actions but that his style of confrontation had the backing of the president’s cabinet, which was also present at the speech.
In an interview with Gente magazine, D’Elia said this about the Parque Norte event: “I’m not a member of the government. I am simply a Kirchner militant. I can tell you that when I was in Parque Norte I received the recognition, the warmth and the care of everyone who was there.”
The president’s appearance with D’Elía was not just a public validation of D’Elía’s actions. It also seemed to be an implicit warning to everyone who had protested at the Plaza de Mayo. The message: “Do this again and you will be met with force.” In other words: Don’t question this government.
But questioning the government is exactly what Tinelli and a handful of other TV personalities did last week. Of course, Tinelli’s comments shouldn’t necessarily be given any more weight than those of any other citizen. Nor does any of this necessarily mean that what he said was valid. But he does have the right to speak his mind. And the fact that he and others have started doing so may indicate that Argentina’s wall of fear and censorship – the wall that divides those who speak freely and fearlessly in public from those who don’t – is starting to crack.