The late Héctor Timerman, who served as foreign minister under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was a man with a strong personality. He fought tooth and nail with anyone who criticised his or the government he represented’s actions – especially the infamous Memorandum of Understanding with Iran, for which he was indicted by controversial federal judge Claudio Bonadio – to his last breath. Many times, the arguments took on a personal note, as when he called journalist Pepe Eliaschev (who broke the Memorandum story in 2011 for Perfil four years before AMIA Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s accusations) “a pseudo-journalist who took any opportunity to offend me.” Eliaschev responded in due form, calling him a “pseudo foreign minister.”
Timerman passed away on December 30 after a long and painful struggle with cancer. He was just 65 years old. He will be remembered for being a staunch defender of the Kirchner governments and their foreign policy, including the decision to forge closer ties with Iran. He will also be remembered for his long history in the defence of human rights after being forced into exile in 1978, a year after his father, Jacobo Timerman, was kidnapped and tortured by the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Timerman was also a journalist who, among other publications, worked for Editorial Perfil’s Revista Noticias, something he later preferred not to mention, after becoming the target of critical journalistic investigations from both Noticias and Perfil newspaper once he became a public servant.
Those who knew Timerman during his years in exile, and before his conversion to Kirchnerism, speak of a calm, well-mannered person who decided to fight against the human rights abuses of a military government he and his father had initially defended, after the disappearance of Jacobo and the appropriation of the La Opinión daily. He held important posts in human rights organisations, including as a co-founder of the Americas chapter of Human Rights Watch, the director at the Fund for Freedom of Expression in London, and as a board member at the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights.
Something changed though, once he became part of Néstor Kirchner’s government in July, 2004, when he was appointed consul in New York (before that he had been personally and politically very close with Elisa Carrió, though that relationship would later turn confrontational). It was during that time that I personally suffered one of then-consul Timerman’s derisions. In 2008, as a student at New York University (NYU), I was surprised to see then-presidential candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner give a talk at my university, where I sought to ask her a simple question for one of my first stories for Perfil.
On my notepad, I had written out carefully: “Senator [Kirchner], I’d first like to congratulate you and your husband for your government’s work in human rights. Yet, your husband [President Kirchner] hasn’t held a press conference in four years and his administration, through the arbitrary distribution of government advertising, and other things, has curtailed press freedom, which is a fundamental human right. If you were to reach the presidency, how would you tackle this issue?”
After a quick talk and an official NYU recognition, Cristina, who had promised to answer questions “until the lights went out,” jolted out of Vanderbilt Hall, probably on her way to a fancy dinner near the Four Seasons hotel, where she usually stayed (I had photographed them at Bice Restaurant on 54th street, a year before, for the cover of Perfil). Trying my luck with someone else from Néstor’s Cabinet (several first-line officials were in presence at the half-empty auditorium), I saw Timerman, whom I knew personally. Cheerful at first, he listened to my question carefully. And then, he erupted in anger, accusing Perfil of “crying” and of having received funds from the Carlos Menem government. Ironically, Timerman was an op-ed writer for Noticias during the Menem years, during which Editorial Perfil was sued more than 30 times by Menem, his family, and members of his administration, being forced by a biased judiciary to pay some US$500,000 in damages. One of those lawsuits came as a consequence of a column written by Timerman himself, in which he called Menem’s secretary, Ramón Hernández, a “butler.”
That same bellicosity led Argentina into a major diplomatic spat with the United States when, in 2011, Timerman led an operation to confiscate sensitive military cargo. Then-US president Barack Obama was forced to intervene after Argentine authorities opened a briefcase with secret contact information that forced the Pentagon to shut down global communications for two hours in order to change all passwords. US forces were in Argentina to conduct training exercises with Argentine security forces, operations which had been approved two years before by the Kirchner government.
The former foreign minister’s biggest battle, though, was the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran. Eliaschev’s 2011 story in Perfil – titled: “The government is negotiating a secret pact with Iran to ‘forget’ the [terrorist] attacks” – said the Iranian Foreign Ministry had circulated a document detailing Cristina’s government’s intention to prioritise trade over bringing to justice those allegedly responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 AMIA bombing. Timerman called it “fake news,” while Nisman dubbed it “absurd” and “impossible.” Nisman later apologised to Eliaschev for not taking him seriously, claiming that while the government had a right to negotiate politically with Iran, it was illegal to close down a judicial investigation (something Timerman repeatedly denied was part of the negotiations that led to the Memorandum). On repeated occasions, Timerman had explained that neither the Executive branch nor Interpol can drop the Red Noticies, or international arrest warrants that hung over the accused Iranian officials’ heads as a consequence of the Argentine investigation into the AMIA bombing. While this is true, and has been corroborated by Interpol’s Ronald Noble, it doesn’t disprove the Kirchner government’s sway over the Judiciary, as evidenced by the number of favourable rulings received by the same federal judges that today are asking for her detention. Bonadio included.
It was shameful to see how Timerman’s indictment at the hands of judge Bonadio delayed his chances of seeking treatment for his illness in the United States. Timerman, who has not been accused of being involved in any cases of corruption, always cooperated with the investigation, defending his tenure at the Cancilleria. His loyalty to the Kirchner governments was undeniable, as was his conviction that they were infallible. Too bad that this loyalty overshadowed all else.