Tens of thousands have taken to the streets across Argentina to protest political violence and show support for Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner the day after she survived an apparently botched assassination attempt.
Political leaders around the world and Pope Francis condemned the attack, as protesters flooded cities across the country in solidarity with a political leader who, like Juan and Evita Perón, dominates Argentina’s political landscape.
The attack was broadcast live late Thursday, when television cameras caught a man pushing through a crowd of supporters and pointing a gun at Fernández de Kirchner’s face.
The attacker was quickly arrested and named as Fernando Andrés Sabag Montiel, a 35-year-old Brazilian citizen who has lived in Argentina since 1998.
Police have not speculated on a motive for the attack, which takes place against a backdrop of political tension and economic crisis, but President Alberto Fernández described it as the most serious incident in Argentina since the country returned to democracy in 1983.
Governments across the hemisphere rejected the attempted assassination, while Buenos Aires-born Francis said, “I pray that social harmony and respect for democratic values will prevail in beloved Argentina, against all forms of violence and aggression.”
On Friday, central Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires was packed with protesters waving light blue and white Argentine flags and huge banners representing the country’s powerful social movements.
Some grabbed framed portraits of Fernández de Kirchner holding the presidential sash. In the background, a huge banner of her face hung next to the image of Eva Perón on the building of the Ministry of Social Development.
The sounds of brass bands and drums filled the air as protesters chanted, “If they touch Cristina, what a mess we’re going to cause!”
Juan Pablo Fort Flanagan, a 51-year-old elementary school teacher, described the assassination attempt as a “fascist attack”.
“What happened yesterday was a disgrace to our democratic institutions,” he said. “You can think like her or you can’t think like her, but you have to respect democracy.”
Peronist leaders said the attacker may have been encouraged by the increasingly violent discourse against Fernández de Kirchner, a polarizing figure facing possible corruption charges.
“It must be made clear that this is in no way an isolated incident of a mentally unbalanced person,” said Buenos Aires Governor Axel Kicillof. “It Happened in a Context” [of increasing political confrontation] and that is where we must act.”
In downtown Buenos Aires, Graciela Jacob, 81, said she was marching on behalf of a generation decimated by the country’s military dictatorship.
“At first I was stunned [when I heard about the attack]. Then angry and afraid this was possible,’ Jacob said. Like many others, she blames the attack on a fiery political atmosphere fueled by opposition politicians and the press.
Tango singer Eduardo Torres, 49, said: “We knew something like this could happen. There is a pretty tense social climate.”
Torres cited the coronavirus pandemic, runaway inflation and the cost of living crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine as factors in the country’s growing political polarization.
“It all led to a kind of social violence, and the split [between left and right] has gotten a lot bigger,” he says.
Torres added that he considers Cristina the most important Argentine politician of the past 30 years. “I think she is the only one who embodies the hope of the people.”
But while Fernández de Kirchner has many such supporters, she has also become the center of venomous hatred from the political right.
In March, a group of protesters attacked the vice president’s Senate office, causing extensive damage, as opposition activists often chant “Death to Cristina” during marches.
Last week, opposition lawmaker Francisco Sánchez — an admirer of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — sparked outrage when he called for the execution of Fernández de Kirchner after she was accused of corruption.
“Crimes like this should be considered treason. They deserve the death penalty,” he tweeted on Aug. 22.
“It’s a message of hate,” said TV newscaster Daniel Navarro, who collected a number of such death references Friday morning for a segment on his Amanecer program.
“A lot of these statements and tweets talk about death, murder, that she must die, it’s a superlative hatred.”
The attack has also sent shockwaves through neighboring Brazil, which is just a month away from a presidential election in which Bolsonaro will face his bitter rival, left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In 2018, Bolsonaro infamously called for supporters to “machine gun” their left-wing opponents, and tensions have soared in recent weeks.
Bolsonaro supporters attacked Lula twice, throwing feces, urine and a primitive explosive device at the former president’s supporters and shooting a prominent workers’ party official.
On Friday, Lula warned that politicians around the world must be prepared for a climate of violence fueled by populist figures.
“I think all of us politicians should be aware of the violence provoked by those who don’t know how to live democratically,” he said.