by Jackson Webster, a Los Angeles native, currently reading International Relations in the King’s College London Department of War Studies.
Last week during a state visit to China for a trade conference, Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tweeted jokes about Chinese inability to pronounce the spanish words for ‘rice’ and ‘petroleum,’ observing the Chinese tendency to instead pronounce them as ‘lice’ and ‘petloleum.’ Her eventual ‘apology’ consisted of an attack on China and its government altogether, stating that “the levels of ridiculousness and absurdity are so high that they can only be digested with humour.” The President’s culturally controversial and diplomatically ill-advised tweets are yet another example of the political character of a government which has proved habitually irresponsible.
The politically-incorrect alternate reality in which Argentina’s president seems to exist would be laughable if she did not govern over the second largest economy in the Latin American world and was not the master of the region’s most powerful military. Last year, American ‘vulture fund’ creditors repossessed the Argentine sailing clipper ARA Libertad, a sailing-and-shot relic still technically listed an active vessel in the Argentinean Navy, in retribution for the latest rounds of Argentinean repudiation of debts. Argentina used a UN convention on rights of the high seas to retake the distinctly nineteenth-century ‘warship’ from the creditors on the grounds that warships have “immunity from civil claims in foreign ports.” When the ship was successfully wrestled back from creditors, it was sailed into Mar del Plata, Argentina to the sound of guns, military bands, a crowd of thousands of people, a speech from the President, and even a display of fireworks. The ordeal looked more like a national holiday than the state-level equivalent of paying one’s rent a week late after being told off by their landlord.
This is most definitely not the first time Argentina has come into less-than-amicable contact with its creditors in recent memory. Buenos Aires defaulted on its national debt most recently in July 2014, when an American court declared that it had to pay back both owners of bonds bought since the previous default in 2002 as well as to international hedge funds such as NML and Elliot Management who had not been compensated for investments made prior to debt restructuring in 2002. Delving back further, one sees a pattern of disregard for debt obligations. Argentina has defaulted on its foreign debts seven times, and has failed to repay domestic creditors five times, since independence in 1816.
The President’s comments were immature, insensitive, and frankly an unfair criticism of diplomats who have bothered to learn the president’s language whereas she has not attempted to learn theirs. Anyone speaking a foreign language, particularly non-westerners who’ve had the courtesy to learn a western language outside of the English or French diplomatic lingua franca, deserves, in the opinion of this author, a bit of leeway in their pronunciation. The media has reacted with surprise and jesting ridicule of the President’s gaffe. Argentina’s creditors, however, likely remain unamused by the joke.