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September 17, 2014
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US hawks have vulture fund ties

US Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio, in a file photo.
By Sebastián Lacunza
Editor-in-Chief
Obama’s gov’t sees improved freedom of expression landscape throughout 2013

Two US politicians appear to be in very different places of the political spectrum. One is seen as the hopeful promise for hardcore conservatives, the bearer of the needed charm and the refreshing message that could win a reshaped US electorate in 2015. The other is an old-guard lawmaker, a populist representative of a Democratic stronghold in the Northeast coast. But Marco Rubio and Robert Menéndez share common features.

Both members of the US Senate Foreign Relations committee anticipated a deep crisis in Argentina and criticized the local democratic standards last Thursday, during the heated hearing to address the Barack Obama’s nominee to become the next US ambassador to Buenos Aires, Noah Mamet, a friend of the US president and a prolific fundraiser for his two presidential campaigns.

The similarities don’t end there. Rubio (Republican — Florida) and Menéndez (Democrat — New Jersey) count donors with ties to the same hedge funds that have sued Argentina before US courts (“vulture funds,” as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner likes to call them) among their main campaign contributors. Menéndez, a senator who is under criminal investigation because of his alleged dealing with two Ecuadorean brothers, fugitive bankers and former media moguls, has the law firm Lowenstein Sandler as his second-largest campaign-finance contributor during the 2009-2014 period, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics, a research group tracking money in US parties.

Lowenstein Sandler, a coporate law firm based in New York and New Jersey specialized in bankruptcy, financial reorganization and creditors’ rights, donated US$81,910 to Menéndez (see more details in www.opensecrets.org). The firm represented a satellite manufacterer that took part in the case NML Capital (a hedge fund that belongs to prominent Republican donor Paul Singer) v. the Republic of Argentina, which was vacated as moot on other grounds by a New York City court in 2012. The information was confirmed to the Herald yesterday by Steven Hecht’s office, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler who led the lawsuit.

Menéndez was acused more than once of having conflicts of interest related to Latin America. In the last chapter of this saga, the NBC television network revealed two weeks ago that this fierce anti-Castro senator is being investigated by the Department of Justice for allegedly lobbying the US government for the permanent residence of Ecuadorean ex-bankers the Isaías brothers, who had financed his campaign. The charges were rejected and qualified as “outlandish allegations” by the Democratic senator’s spokeswoman. Isaías’ media outlets were confiscated in Ecuador after they were found guilty of defrauding account holders to the tune of US$100 million, in a court case that was considered understandable by the US Embassy in Quito.

The other significant voice that questioned Obama’s nominee to Buenos Aires in the US Senate came from the young Cuban-American Rubio, who repeated his criticism against the Argentine government and Mamet before USA Today on Tuesday. In his case, links with Paul Singer are clearer. The bondholder who won the main case against Argentina in Judge Thomas Griesa’s court and achieved the seizure of the Libertad frigate in Ghana for several months more than one year ago also appears as the second-largest contributor to Rubio’s campaign between 2009 and 2014, with US$117,620, according to the same political fundraising watchdog. The amount was donated by Elliott Management, a hedge fund founded by Singer.

Rubio and Menéndez raised their concern on freedom of expression in Argentina and included the CFK administration in what they considered a prevailing trend in the region where governments are democratically elected but then limit freedoms. While the Republican for Florida predicted a near “collapse” for the Argentine economy and denounced the government has been cracking down on the news media and political opponents, the Democratic for New Jersey showed his concern on intellectual property, money laundering and narcotics trafficking. “I see what has happened in press freedom with Clarín, which is one of the few news outlets to challenge the Kirchners’ policies, being besieged by the administration,” Menéndez added.

Washington’s positive view

The next day, the State Department clarified that senators’ opinion are not the government’s. Moreover, Obama’s administration actually sees an improvement in Argentina’s freedom of expression environment, a perception that was mainly boosted by the ruling on media law released by the Supreme Court on October 29.

“The situation has changed and has improved over the last year,” a source from Obama’s administration who requested anonymity to speak about the issue told the Herald. Some concerns have been raised in the US government regarding rumours about the alleged takeover of Clarín Group which were informed by local media outlets last May. In another episode of the conflict between Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration and Clarín Group, La Nación’s columnist Joaquín Morales Solá revealed nine months ago a supposedly official plan to land by force in the Argentina’s media giant in order to control its editorial line and push some iconic stars out, like Jorge Lanata — a prediction that never came to pass.

Even though US and other governments have kept a cautious distance from the break in the relationship between Clarín and the CFK administration that took place in 2008, Morales Solá’s prediction and some overreactions from the Kirchnerite hard line (i.e. Guillermo Moreno) led to considerable concerns about freedom of speech in the country.

However, the Obama’s administration’s view is not the same as those expressed by politicians, some newspapers and NGO in the United States. “What we really see here is that the government and the president speak about and criticize the media, but it happens everywhere all the time. In our country, with Fox News, CBS, ABC,” the governamental source highlighted.

The judicial ruling that considered the media law “constitutional” four months ago meant a milestone for foreign governments and analysts that were observing the Argentine media landscape. As a matter of fact, a number of European diplomats admitted to the Herald that the articles and principles included in the broadcasting law passed in 2009 are pretty similar to the media legislations in their own countries, leaving little room to call it a “Chavist” piece against freedom of expression.

@sebalacunza

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