Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner mimicked the Chinese accent in a tweet, replacing r’s with l’s, as she met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to raise investment in the recession-hit South American economy.
“Did they only come for lice and petloleum?” Fernandez wrote in Spanish on her Twitter account to 3.52 million followers, in reference to 1,000 businesspeople who attended a conference where she spoke. A minute later, she wrote “sorry, the levels of ridiculousness and absurdity are so high they can only be digested with humor.”
Fernandez’s tweet about what attracted her audience in China was a response to criticism that she packs events with her supporters. It plunged her into a fresh controversy less than a month after the still-unexplained death of a prosecutor who had accused her of graft. Fernandez at first said he killed himself, then alleged he was murdered to sully her reputation.
Fernandez, who will leave office after elections in October, signed 15 agreements with Xi on issues ranging from nuclear energy to agriculture as part of her four-day state visit to the world’s second-largest economy.
“Every day she’s digging herself a bigger hole and showing the world she’s finishing her term with an inverse learning curve,” said Sergio Berensztein, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst. “You expect new presidents to make errors at the beginning and to finish well but she’s the opposite.”
Chinese users of social media took to Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo to express outrage at Fernandez’s comments. One Weibo user wrote: “It’s Japanese and Koreans who are unable to differentiate between L and R, not the Chinese.” Another said: “If you want to be funny, do it in an intelligent way.”
State-run media avoided the furor, instead highlighting a picture of Xi and Fernandez shaking hands. China has no comment on Fernandez’s tweets, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters Thursday in Beijing.
Argentina is looking to loans from China to bolster a currency that slumped 23 percent against the dollar last year amid the country’s second default in 13 years. The central bank has tapped about $3 billion of an $11 billion currency swap agreement with China. Argentina is also depending on China to finance hydroelectric dams, while China’s Sinopec is analyzing an investment with state-run YPF SA to develop shale gas and oil in the vast Vaca Muerta fields.
Speaking on Thursday in a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang, Fernandez said she was thankful for the “warmth” shown to her throughout her visit. During Xi’s last trip to Argentina the countries’ ties were upgraded to “strategic and integral,” she said. Li said China appreciated how much Fernandez values the relationship.
Presidential spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro didn’t answer his mobile phone or return an e-mail seeking comment on the tweets. The presidential palace’s official Twitter account, @CasaRosadaAR, retweeted Fernandez’s comment about it being a joke without sending the tweet on the Chinese accent.
Fernandez’s use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that her advisers have little control over what she publishes, said Mariel Fornoni, director of polling company Management & Fit. While social media allows her to communicate more directly with her followers, it also means that her roles as a president and a private citizen can often become blurred, Fornoni said.
“She thinks she can express herself as a normal citizen without her comments being interpreted as a head of state,” Fornoni said in a telephone interview.
Prosecutor Alberto Nisman was discovered dead in his apartment from a shot to the temple a day before he was due to present evidence to lawmakers to back up a formal complaint he filed against Fernandez. Nisman had accused Fernandez of seeking to absolve Iranian officials from their alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in exchange for lucrative trade deals.
Far from calming speculation over the death and assuring the public it would be resolved, Fernandez added her own conspiracy theory and cited other suspicious suicides in Argentina that had never been resolved.
Amid criticism that her speculation over Nisman’s death is influencing the investigation, Fernandez said Jan. 30 she wouldn’t be silenced.
“No one from another branch of power can tell the president to shut her mouth and not speak, because I’m going to talk and I’ll talk as much as I want to,” Fernandez said.
Her ministers have been equally combative. Cabinet Minister Jorge Capitanich on Monday tore up an article on live television by Clarin newspaper that said a draft document calling for an arrest warrant against Fernandez had been discovered in the wastepaper basket of Nisman’s apartment, calling it a lie.
Viviana Fein, the prosecutor investigating Nisman’s death later corroborated the article after a statement sent out in her name had erroneously denied the existence of the file. Secretary General Anibal Fernandez criticized Fein’s handling of the case as “Vaudeville theater” and calling her “Droopy,” after the cartoon dog created by Tex Avery for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.
Fernandez’s tweet on China won’t derail trade or diplomatic relations with China, according to Ernesto Fernandez Taboada, executive director at the Argentine China Chamber of Commerce in Buenos Aires.
“We provide classes to businessmen on how to do business in China and advise that they don’t make jokes during meetings since the Chinese may not understand the jokes or translation may alter the meaning,” Taboada said by telephone. “I don’t believe the Chinese are reading our president’s tweets all day.”
China is Argentina’s biggest trade partner after Brazil, with $17.5 billion of commerce in 2013. The country is the largest market for Argentina’s agricultural exports including soybeans.
China in July agreed to provide financing of $4.7 billion for two hydroelectric dams in the south of Argentina, of which $287 million will be disbursed shortly.
Central bank reserves, which are used to pay debt and finance imports, have risen 11 percent to $31.2 billion since the monetary authority received the first transfer of yuan as part of the currency swap on Oct. 30.
Fernandez, who assumed the presidency in place of her husband Nestor Kirchner in 2007, will step down in December and isn’t eligible to run for a third term.
Racism is widespread and there’s little public disapproval in Argentina, said Maria Victoria Murillo, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“There’s no political correctness in Argentina, these kinds of jokes happen all the time,” Murillo said by phone from New York. “What’s surprising is that she did this in her role as a head of state and on an official visit to China and that she didn’t think this might be offensive.”