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Thoughts on Fear and Censorship in Argentina

November 16th, 2009 | Categoría: Politics

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wayMore 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.

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14 Comments

DiegoNo Gravatar says:

The worst part is, there still a huge amount of Argentinians who still support this government and this kind of violent manifestation.
Sad it is really sad what Argentina has become during the last 6 years.

Way! lets all laugh at those scumy bastards

rmartinNo Gravatar says:

Surprised you failed to mention in this fantastic and accurate account of the current “Dictatorship” that D’Elia himself receives around 30,000 pesos a month from the government, hardly a poor salary and ALL of his family work for the government. They are all nothing but ghetto trash out to intimidate anyone who threatens their power. It is a shame indeed.

99No Gravatar says:

Our small family campo business received five AFIP “inspection visits” and threats in the first 6 months of this year. Some were for minor stuff and some for not so minor things and always very intimidating. Thank goodness we keep everything in white and with proper records otherwise it would be a nightmare.

Jim BradfordNo Gravatar says:

Sounds like it’s time for a new leadership!

Eric ENo Gravatar says:

Is there anyone writing this incisively (in English) about the Argentine political scene? Great stuff. More please!

AlanNo Gravatar says:

Great post Taos! It will be interesting to see what happens when the Kirchner dynasty falls, and what kind of information will come out from people in the government/close to the regime that are too afraid to talk right now.

Anyway, you reminded me of some great TV last year, on Jorge Lanata’s program, when he got Peña and D’Elía together shortly after the radio program incident, to talk things through. Once again, D’Elía excels in his own little way, saying that his “hate is a source of pride” (or something along those lines) and it is a “visceral hate”. And this guy is/was close to the government? What a great example to all!

You can watch that program on Youtube, in six parts (WELL WORTH a watch, for anyone that understands Spanish and has an interest in Argentine politics/current affairs):

Part 1 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYC2O0LMuyE
Part 2 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArftwfeNFPE
Part 3 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqrJMHAySqk
Part 4 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEo7q4Kr-G8
Part 5 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuvW8czI75g
Part 6 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RtQbUM-NrM

Great work by always from Jorge Lanata. And RIP Fernando Peña!

Alan

AlanNo Gravatar says:

Correction: I should have said that the Lanata program (DDT) was earlier this year, not last year. I feel like I’m already in 2010!

samNo Gravatar says:

Thanks for writing this. The night D’Elia and his matones stormed those of us who were peacefully assembled in the Plaza de Mayo was a night I will never forget and I will never forgive the Kirchners whose fingerprints were all over it.

[…] El artículo puede ser leido, en inglés, aquí. […]

DaniNo Gravatar says:

You really disappoint me. Most times I don’t agree with you. But I respect your analysis and your fair use of evidence. But this time I think you left your feelings carry you. Your post, I must say, is poor.

I watch Argentine media, and you can read, hear, and watch a lot of (and mostly) opinions against the government. Before the elections, Tinelli and other entertainers practically campaigned for the opposition. You can see Mirtha every day shutting down anyone who defends the government, as if they were martians. I think that you are utterly exaggerating. Yes, Argentine politics is not the most beautiful thing in the world. I hope it gets better. But are you saying that this “climate” is substantially worse than in previous governments? (I’m obviously not justifying any form of censorship — I just think that your “climate” as a clear and defined category, different from everyday Argentine post-dictatorship politics is your creation).

You fail to mention the context of D’elia’s conversation with Peña. Peña not only was racist in his treatment of D’elia (don’t you think? does that deserve any mention?), he also called D’elia’s house the day before. Since D’elia was out, Peña spoke quite aggressively to D’elia’s son (and called him ‘negro de mierda’). D’elia’s son didn’t really care to talk and Peña pushed him. D’elia was quite angry about this and he explained his behavior in Lanata’s program (a show in which Peña looked really stupid, I’m so sorry to say). But you have to give context if you want to be fair.

This is the audio of Peña’s conversation with D’elia’s son: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNDAURNjj6g

I actually liked Peña and cried when he died. I don’t like D’elia and I disagree with his politics and his behavior in Plaza de Mayo (and other places). But his words are free speech, too. Do you have anything to say about what D’elia said? Should he say that he loves the oligarchy? He said “I hate people like you who defend an unjust and unfair country.” What is exactly what bothered you from his words? I mean, you could have made your point about D’elia’s inexcusable behavior without extensively quoting his words, so you must have some issue with them. What part of his rant? The hate? The fact that he says that the country is unjust and unfair? Do you disagree with that statement? (Just to make this point clear again: I’m not a D’elia supporter and I don’t agree with his political strategies and much of his worldview, but don’t you think his words also express something? I’m amazed that you quote them and ignore them, as if they were self-explanatory. Well, I would like to know what exactly the issue is.)

You also present “business leaders” as if they didn’t have any sort of interest, and as if they really cared about free speech as a value that is more important that their business interest (by the way, Tinelli plays his politics, too, and you can’t just ignore that). One thing is not to give an opinion that you truly believe, out of fear of retaliation. A different one is not to say something that you think, because saying it may hurt your privileges or position. That’s not fear or censorship, it’s political calculation, and happens all the time. I would like to know why powerful people don’t want to speak. Do you read La Nacion? Are those people not influential?

You treat the notion that people say something different in private and in public very naively. “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.” Yes, it could be censorship, of course. But I also call that politics.

AlanNo Gravatar says:

Dani,

I think that the difference in what Peña said, and what D’elia said, is this:

Peña was a radio talk show host, and a performer. He had a character that he projected that was controversial, angry and politically incorrect. His job was to entertain and create interest. You could either pay attention to Peña if you liked that kind of thing, or switch off if you don’t. Simple.

D’elia meanwhile, has been involved with, and on the payroll of the national government. You cannot and should not just ignore what someone involved in the government says, and would expect more of someone in that position than a person who hits protesters and goes on hateful rants on air, provoked or unprovoked. And after D’elia did this, he rightfully should be condemned, and never be allowed near a position of influence in any self-respecting government.

Aside from the oligarchy thing (which is a red herring – calling anyone that has a bit of money “the oligarchy” is pure hyperbole and spin – an attempt to discredit them with a dirty word when you have no argument), this is one part of what D’elia said to Peña that any rational person should surely take issue with:

“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.”

That contains so much hate, and so little reasoning. It is just pure bile. What is there NOT to take issue with in what he says.

And no, I don’t like that Peña calls people “negro de mierda”. But then, at least half the Argentine population call people that. So it goes. I think that Peña did not hate people with darker skin, and nor did he say he hated them in this particular episode (maybe he did another time, I did not follow Peña up until a couple of years ago). Meanwhile, D’elia says he hates white people. He hates anyone with money (even people who have earnt it). He probably wants to bomb all the oligarchs in barrio norte, right? Maybe some of them would deserve it, but this populist idea that EVERYONE with money is a bad person and is doing something to make other people poor, has no logical basis. There are many examples of people like that, but you can’t tar everyone with the same brush, and even worse, do it as hatefully as D’elia.

Of course the country is unjust and unfair. All societies are to an extent. I don’t think Peña would have really defended an unjust and unfair country. This is again, just hyperbole from D’elia. And I am sure that Taos (though of course I don’t want to speak for him) would agree that Argentina is unjust and unfair, it is obvious, so why does he need to explain his quoting of that passage? It is the other stuff in the rant that is obviously objectionable.

Anonymous says:

I think you are far from understanding what Delia had said. You are in the surface of the subject. It seems that the hate part is so politicaly incorrect for you that prevents you from getting to the bottom of the problem. He is speaking on behalf of the negros here. The negros are the most exploted and neglected part of our society whether you like Delia or not (it seems for you he is just a negro) he spoke his mind in that interview, his ways might be objectionable, but listen to the message here.

Do you know how much does a peon in the campo make for working from sunraise to sunset? do you know how much our burquesy and oligarchy pay a maid? do you know the percentage of maids that do not have a right to retirement and health care because they do not want to declare them as employees in order to evade taxes? do you know what porcentage of their business is in the black? do you know how much money they would rather spend into briving than into paying taxes?
this is what he is talking about when he says “I hate them” he is saying he does not respect people that exploits negros.

I understand most of the readers of this blog are foreigners and mostly they tend to be liberal, and with that background you tend to “hate” our President and feel free to disrespect her and disagree but you have to understand one thing, our history has not started in 1976 or 1983 it goes way back and you dont know it. Our history is full of olygarchy shit. They fucked us up and they continue to do so. That is why you have Delia’s and many social movements but you seem to only see unworthy negros.

These things are too nice to say about those bastards. I hope they all go and fucking die. When those dickheads turn up at the world cup, we Englishmen are going to fucking kill them and shit on there graves. Remember ‘Hand of God’ and the falklands war. Did you know Messi has hand of God on his boots. Go fucking die you Argintinian gits

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