Academic journal article Journal of International and Global Studies

Political Polarization and Nisman's Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina

Academic journal article Journal of International and Global Studies

Political Polarization and Nisman's Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina

Article excerpt

On January 18, 2015, Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead in an apartment in Puerto Madero, Argentina. He had been shot once in the right temple, and a .22 caliber handgun was found with the body. Nisman had been the lead prosecutor of the bombing of a Jewish community center (AMIA) on July 18, 1994, which killed 85 people. His body was found just hours before he was scheduled to report to Congress regarding his allegations that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman had conspired to impede an investigation against Iranian agents involved in the bombing, allegedly in exchange for certain trade concessions. The timing of Nisman's death led to widespread conspiracy theories, as the family, media outlets, and sectors of the Argentine judiciary, all implied that the government might have been involved in his assassination, which, the theories claimed, had been disguised as a suicide. In response, the Argentine government--including President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner--proposed conspiracy theories that focused on rogue elements within the intelligence services and the interests of foreign actors. These and other conspiracy narratives included Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, Zionists, and New York financiers.

The purpose of this paper is not to resolve these conflicting accounts or to find the true history of events in the Nisman case. Rather, this paper will examine these competing narratives to understand why they flourished, how they reflected Argentine society, and where they fit within the broader context of the Americas. Conspiracy theories in which a president is accused of murder are not unique to Argentina. We can see similar cases, for example, with the Vince Foster case in 1993 in the United States, when the Deputy White House Counsel committed suicide. After his death, many conspiracy theorists alleged that President Clinton was responsible for his murder. In 2009, in Guatemala, Rodrigo Rosenburg Marzano allegedly hired hitmen to kill him, after he first created a video that blamed the president for his murder. Both cases created multiple and enduring conspiracy theories. This paper will explore the different conspiracy theories in the Nisman case, based on newspaper articles, documentary films, and books, as well as a small number of interviews. (1) We will then place this discussion into the broader context of Argentine political history and current Latin American trends. Throughout the region, the legacy of illegitimate military governments, political polarization, and economic crises have created an environment favorable to conspiracy theories, because of the breakdown of popular trust in government.

Conspiracy Theories

At the most basic level, the core factor that all conspiracy theories share is the belief that people in power are controlling events in secrecy to achieve an evil end (Sunstein & Vermeule, 1994, p. 205; Swami, 2012, p. 280). In every account of a conspiracy theory, there are two narratives: a public version that is meant to be believed by the population and a secret version to which only those involved are privy--i.e., the version that the conspiracy theorists have deduced (Kelman, 2012, pp. 4-5). Still, these characteristics alone are not enough to qualify a belief as a conspiracy theory. True conspiracies do exist, from President Nixon's authorization of the Watergate burglary to Nazi Germany's manufacture of the Gleiwitz incident to begin World War Two. What distinguishes conspiracy theories from actual conspiracies is that they are true "theories," in that they not only detail particular facts related to a single event but also form part of a comprehensive explanatory framework that accounts for many aspects of society and politics. These explanations typically entail collaborations amongst unlikely allies, the alleged plotters' extreme competence at shaping events while maintaining secrecy, and the belief that society is fundamentally threatened by the plotters' immoral agenda. …

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