May 24, 2013
Back from Caracas
It’s no surprise. On Tuesday at 4.25 pm in Caracas, when the death of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez was officially announced, time pretty much all but stopped for a minute. The region held its breath — and so did newspaper editors. Time can’t stop. It just felt that way. But times can be redefined. Chávez’s death immediately, for instance, redefined the schedule of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on Tuesday afternoon.
The President was about to make an official announcement in Government House about education when Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s vice-president, told the world from Caracas that charismatic Chávez had passed on. Fernández de Kirchner cancelled her public appearance immediately with officials already gathered for the ceremony.
Argentina’s presidential jet was readied in a hurry and Fernández de Kirchner flew to Caracas on Tuesday night. The President probably had no time to hear Venezuelan officials, after Maduro’s dramatic message, say on Tuesday that world leaders had been advised that the official state funeral would be held on Friday.
Flying with CFK to Caracas was José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, and his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky.
Fernández de Kirchner and the Mujicas, along with Bolivia’s Evo Morales, were the first regional leaders to arrival in Venezuela where the masses that support Chávez were, to quote Maduro, still struggling to come to terms with what is a “historic tragedy” to them.
The President’s decision to rush off to Venezuela says a lot about her. But it’s not that easy to figure out the meaning of her actions. Was she simply acting on impulse on Tuesday night? Or was it a calculated move? The President, who lost her husband (former president Néstor Kirchner) to a heart attack in 2010, considers Chávez a personal friend. Chávez, when Kirchner died suddenly, also rushed to Buenos Aires. Chávez was one of the few leaders who also flew to Santa Cruz, the province in Patagonia where Kirchner was laid to rest after the massive wake held in Buenos Aires.
Fernández de Kirchner had travelled to Cuba in January where Chávez was hospitalized fighting cancer to visit. But reports said that Fernández de Kirchner did not see the ailing Chávez in Havana, but instead chose to offer her support to his daughters.
It was assumed that Fernández de Kirchner, and her large delegation of about 100 officials, were certain to stay in Caracas until Friday for what turned out to be a fiery funeral for Chávez, attended by over 50 presidents including, Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
Ahmadinejad and Lukashenko are rogue leaders to many and were both on excellent terms with Chávez. It was not clear on Tuesday night, when CFK was flying to Caracas, whether Ahmadinejad would attend Friday’s funeral.
State funerals are big affairs. Crossing paths with Lukashenko and others is merely anecdotal. But the prospect of Fernández de Kirchner having to potentially shake hands with Ahmadinejad was a completely different diplomatic story.
Argentina in January signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran to jointly probe the 1994 terrorist bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Argentina’s Congress, which is controlled by CFK’s Victory Front ruling coalition, approved the agreement (critics call it a “pact”) last month. The memo signed with Iran has been vehemently opposed by Argentina’s Jewish community associations DAIA and AMIA and by many relatives of the bombing’s victims. Other relatives have backed the accord, which in theory would allow for the Iranian suspects to be questioned by Argentine court officials in Tehran. The supporters of the deal say that it could help the Argentine court investigation make progress.
Now, suddenly due to Chávez’s death, Fernández de Kirchner and Ahmadinejad and their delegations looked like they were to bump into each other for the first time since the foreign ministers of Argentina and Iran signed the memorandum of understanding in January.
Yet the impact of Chávez’s death in Caracas, after losing his fight against cancer, was big enough news on Tuesday night, to overshadow any other diplomatic speculation.
Fernández de Kirchner, Morales and Mujica on Wednesday stood over the open coffin holding the remains of Chávez in a “guard of honour” at the Military Academy in Caracas on Wednesday.
Fernández de Kirchner later said that she chose not to look at Chávez so as to hold the memory she had of him in health. By the time Fernández de Kirchner arrived in the capital of Chavism hundreds of thousands of Chávez’s supporters had taken to the streets to file past the coffin of their leader.
By Thursday it was clear that Chávez’s masses, the voters that allowed him to win so many elections, were out in force mourning him. Maduro, looking overwhelmed and trying to do something with the sentiment, announced on Thursday that the wake would be extended for seven more days and that Chávez’s body would be embalmed “like Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Mihn.”
Speculation soon started to mount that Fernández de Kirchner would leave on Thursday ahead of the state funeral the next day. Argentine officials soon confirmed the news of an early return.
Argentina’s Defence minister denied that Ahmadinejad’s attendance was the reason for the departure.
Funerals are often occasions on which the friends of a dead person who don’t necessarily get along with each other have to put up with being in the same place.
Yet CFK was likely to pay a heavy political price domestically for staying at a funeral also attended by Ahmadinejad. Fernández de Kirchner left Caracas on Thursday taking all her official delegation with her.
The President was not secretive about why she was going home ahead of Chávez massive, momentous and militant funeral on Friday. CFK has 1,691,757 followers on Twitter (by yesterday’s count). The President on Thursday tweeted that doctors had advised her not to stay too long in the hot weather conditions because she suffers from chronic low blood pressure. “Protocol,” she added in another tweet, was not an issue for her. “I did not come here to say farewell to a President, but to a comrade and a friend,” she told her followers. Chávez, she said, was “a man who helped Argentina when everyone else held back.”
Chávez’s Venezuela granted loans to Argentina when Kirchner was president between 2003-2007. Venezuela’s fuel has also been imported by the Kirchnerite administrations to deal with energy shortages. But flying to Caracas for Fernández de Kirchner was not about reasons of state, she said. Still Argentina declared three days of national mourning and flags were flown at half mast.
It’s difficult to assess what kind of impact Chávez’s death will have on Argentina. Certainly that impact would have been different if Fernández de Kirchner, for better or for worse, had decided to stay for the entirety of her friend’s long funeral.
The President’s official reasons were put across clearly enough. Even if it was not a calculated move the President’s early exit left the opposition with little to criticize. Buenos Aires Mayor Maurcio Macri, the leader of the opposition centre-right party PRO, has declared “with all due respect” that there is nothing Argentina has to emulate from Chávez’s Venezuela.
Fernández de Kirchner obviously thinks differently. Mujica called Chávez “controversial,” but he also called him “generous” and “colossal.”
Reuters yesterday reported that President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil had left Venezuela “under the cover of night and skipping a funeral ceremony for its late leader Hugo Chávez.” The report said Rousseff “was once again trying to chart out a more moderate brand of leftism and send a clear signal to investors and diplomats.”
But all these leaders saw good things in Chávez. The immediate effect of Chávez’s death in Argentina is probably a sobering one (even when a confrontation between CFK and her ally Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli is looming).
With the President flying off suddenly to Venezuela, much of the political brawling that dominates the news stopped. By flying back on Thursday the Iran factor was pretty much reduced to a non-issue.
Macri spoke his mind about Chávez. The mayor had invited the President, who does not take his calls, to the re-opening of subway Line A in Buenos Aires on Wednesday. Fernández de Kirchner and Macri spent a lot of time bickering about the city subway until the mayor finally accepted to take over the service from the national government.
It was extremely unlikely that the President would have accepted Macri’s invitation. Macri was hoping to make a political point by inviting the President and then potentially capitalizing on her decision not to attend Wednesday’s re-opening. But come Wednesday Fernández de Kirchner was in Caracas.
The national government dispatched Interior and Transport Minister Florencio Randazzo to the subway opening ceremony headed by Macri. Macri and Randazzo chatted amiably enough and a day or two later were arguing about policies in the media.
Chávez’s death is also likely to have a sobering effect on the opposition, if only briefly, because it is a reminder of the kind of political support that, to quote Mujica, “colossal” and “controversial” leaders often enjoy. Kirchner’s funeral in 2010 was attended by thousands and it changed the mood of the nation dramatically enough for Fernández de Kirchner to score an impressive landslide re-election victory a year later. Leaders of most Kirchnerite political groups also travelled to Caracas to pay tribute to Chávez. Chávez was probably more of an influence for those Kirchnerite activists than for the President herself.
Chávez is dead. Fernández de Kirchner and Ahmadinejad never for a minute stepped into the same hall together. The President, after flying to Caracas and back in a flash and keeping everyone posted with many tweets, has shown the region and Argentina that she is very much her own person.