To those of us used to her bursts of flame from the political pulpit, it didn’t really seem out of the ordinary. But at the stately United Nations, among many other good speakers (kudos Jordan and Palestine) and some decidedly more lackluster ones (sorry Mauritania), President Cristina Fernandez Krichner’s often blistering delivery shook up the international delegations and somber mood at the opening of the 69th General Assembly in New York on Wednesday.
From the unavoidable issue of the Vulture Funds and habitual one of the Malvinas Islands to more globally urgent topics, like UN reform and the Islamic State (IS), she came out all guns blazing during her 30 minute speech from the famous podium.
It was one of the most interesting, unbalanced and probably radical speeches of the 69th General Assembly so far. It evoked memories of other explosive and iconic Latin American speeches given at the UN: Evo Morales’ recent pleas for Pachamama environmentalism, or Chavez playing the revolutionary preacher, when he scolded George W. Bush as the devil incarnate while wielding Noam Chomsky’s book in his hands like a second bible.
Cristina didn’t do a Hugo, but wasn’t a million miles away either. The topics she chose even generated faint echoes of Argentina’s very own, most famous revolutionary icon and his historic address in defense of self-determination for Latin America in ’65. She was severely lacking in the khaki and beard departments, though.
Her uneven and at times rambling style (she was always going to be way over her allocated minutes, wasn’t she?) focused on this theme of self-determination, along with global unity, which was returned to again and again. Armed with this as her chosen universally appreciated concept, Cristina fashioned it into a bat and started swinging at the first obvious target; the Vulture Funds. She was defiant and belligerent towards them as we knew she would be.
Firstly the scene was set by her telling a story. It was basically a history lesson that the General Assembly’s mass of experienced diplomats and heads of state probably didn’t need, but it did put the situation in context well enough. It spanned Argentina’s 2001 Great Depression, and eventual recovery and development under Nestor and then her own leadership. A1 Kirchnerite propaganda, of course, spread thick over the bread of the economy theme.
Still, it was rousing stuff nonetheless: “We have done this with our own resources” she said “…and initiated projects of social inclusion despite complete, absolute bankruptcy”. Almost like a rallying cry for the majority of less powerful states in the Assembly, that overwhelmingly supported CFK’s government over debt restructuring, and that might look to 21st Century Argentina’s domestic successes in tackling issues like widespread poverty in the wake of financial collapse.
In fact, Cristina deliberately reached out to this group when she launched her tirade against the Vulture Funds (that’s “holdout creditors” to their fans and those of you who enjoy financial newspeak.) She reminded the Assembly how, for example, many African nations had found themselves caught up in similar Catch-22 debt situations before, forged by pirates of international finance like the ones now holding Argentina to ransom.
As we know, Cristina already won the symbolic battle here in the same, newly renovated Assembly just a couple of weeks ago, when a big majority of the 195 member states supported Resolution 60/304. It pushes for rules to restructure the foreign debts for all countries (just like her government managed with 92 percent of the Vultures, remember?) Most countries in the world seem to support the Argentina over the issue, with only eleven actually voting against the resolution.
So Cristina knew she was on firm ground denouncing federal judge Thomas Griesa and the vultures in language as caustic as she liked, in much the same way as Rodolfo Rodriguez of Cuba did a few weeks ago as the resolution was passing when he remarked how the funds “did not deserve” the name “vulture”. “Vultures contribute positively to their ecosystems” he said. “These funds are parasitic”.
She likewise gave the creditors both barrels. At one surreal moment Cristina even quoted ex-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the new Self-Raising Lazarus of British politics (and hardly an enemy of international finance), who told the UN once how these creditors were “indignant, immoral, and prevent countries from tackling problems of education, health and poverty.” But she went further. They were no less than “economic and financial terrorists” who “create poverty, misery and hunger through the sin of speculation”.
The hall, filled with a lot of dusty diplomatic types, agreed by and large, and applauded loudly from delegations all around the Assembly after she sought closure on the problem by painting it as an urgent global issue:
“Now they are setting up an obstacle to those who trust in Argentina, the 92.4 percent. And for that reason, I welcome the fact that this General Assembly has taken the bull by the horns and I hope that between this year and next year, before the General Assembly in 2015 is held we will be able to build active and constructive multilateralism. Because that’s what we’re talking about. We can achieve that framework for re-structuring sovereign debt so that no other country goes through what Argentina is now going through. A country that has the capacity to pay, the will to pay and that is going to pay its debt despite these vulture funds.”
So that was the Vultures dealt with, at least as far as she was concerned. What else did the President have in her sights? It was a speech championing dialogue and cooperation between countries as the way to solve problems, as opposed to control by the powerful few. It’s a reoccurring theme at the UN, a well-intentioned, imperfect organization that often fails to deal with the most urgent problems as its structure is swayed in favor of the ex-Cold War superpowers.
Sure, every member state at the General assembly has a vote on the resolutions passed. But it’s the Security Council- UNSC for short -that holds the power, where only five countries (the US, Russia, China, France and the UK) have permanent seats and the power of veto anything they don’t like. It’s something the Americans do for Israel every time a proposal is drafted about their illegal occupation of Palestine, for example, exacerbating the peace process.
Cristina actually mentioned this, rightly championing full membership for Palestine as a way to “untangle some of the Gordian knots” in the Middle East. She also couldn’t leave out the absurd IS threat against her life, and in her best righteous tones condemned how hypocritical the powerful states can be over this problem:
“When you face terrorism, the major powers change the concept of friend, enemy, terrorist far too easily.”
Using the most obvious example at hand, she pointed out how the Syrian government was the enemy last year to both the US and IS. Now Syrian President Assad is seen as a potentially useful ally against IS, this year’s new enemy in the region. Pointing out the blatant hypocrisies of US foreign policy might not be difficult, but before the gathered nations of a world the Americans have tried to shape in their own image, it takes some nerve too.
It was a decent speech generally as it captured the zeitgeist of the 69th General Assembly more or less: Multilateralism i.e. States working together and talking instead of powerful ones doing as they like. It was the buzzword of the day and she tapped into it well, even if shoe-horning the habitual mention of the Malvinas sovereignty argument in amongst all this was clumsily done, and maybe beside the point.
But then, that is what these speeches to the General Assembly are for. Citing your own national problems and concerns, and offering up ideas about local and global issues to the gathered nations of the world, in the hope that something (anything!) positive comes out of it. The final ace up her sleeve was a call to radically overhaul the way the UN is run by giving power back from the Security Council to the General Assembly:
“This Assembly must fight to take back the power it delegated to the Security Council….We should rescue this Assembly where each one of us has one vote. True global democracy. When this is met with fully I think we will find the beginning of a solution.”
Say what you will about CFK on domestic issues, but in the geo-political game that everyone has to play at the UN (place names and all), she did a pretty good job on Wednesday of standing up for Argentine interests, and offered interesting ideas about the great imbalance of power in the world today and how to sort it out. Because more often than not, it isn’t just Argentina or even Latin America that gets a bum deal out of this state of affairs, but most of the rest of the world too.