Q&A with Argentine Ambassador Hector Timerman

At 53, Argentine Ambassador Hector Timerman is one of South America’s top diplomats; recently promoted from consul to New York to the prized post of envoy to the United States, he bears one of the most famous last names in modern South American history. He’s the son of the late Jacobo Timerman, the heroic journalist-publisher who was abducted in 1977 and tortured by his nation’s former military dictatorship. International protest by outraged writers and activists and then-President Jimmy Carter gained the elder Timerman’s release from the gulag, where some 30,000 others died. The son followed in his father’s footsteps as a journalist before becoming a diplomat.

Timerman sat for an interview at the Argentine residence in Hancock Park. He was in town to give a speech at UCLA to commemorate the opening of a new institute for study of South America’s Southern Cone nations. That night he flew to Washington to spend Yom Kippur “with family and friends.”

The Jewish Journal: Many American Jews don’t realize how Jewish Argentina is these days — particularly Buenos Aires, with the biggest Jewish community in the Spanish-speaking world. What accounts for the new vitality of this community?
Hector Timerman: The modern rise of the Jewish consciousness in Argentina stems from the return to democracy of 25 years ago. For the first time in its history, Jews can feel not like a conspicuous minority or foreign presence, but part of a society in which they participate fully. The same is true of other minorities frightened by earlier regimes, particularly the dictatorship. It was also true that the rest of society learned the value of a modern, diverse democracy, which brought us a newer generation, a more creative generation, that values [differing] people simply for what they contribute to society. So Jews now live in a society that is happy to receive their creative spirit.

JJ: America’s enduring its toughest financial crises in two decades. Argentine commentators have suggested, perhaps facetiously, that based on the experience of its own banking crises, such as that of 2002, Americans could learn from Argentines how to live with meltdown.
HT: Yes, Argentina has gone through terrible economic crises. We know too well how these events can batter you. We understand the pain the United States is going through. But Argentina isn’t the United States. Each country has to find its own way out of its own economic troubles. No one solution fits all– each nation has its own history, traditions, realities. Maybe this crisis [will help] America understand that its own financial advice to other countries wasn’t always right for that particular country. Maybe, when the United States comes out of this crisis, we’ll all be better prepared to understand one another.

JJ: As ambassador, you’ve spoken out strongly about the so-called ‘Maletagate’ trial –the ongoing federal case in Miami concerning a suitcase full of $790,000, allegedly from Venezuela, smuggled last year into Argentina on a private jet. The FBI and federal prosecutors contend the money was to help elect your president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and their witness, Antonini Wilson, so testified. He also signed a letter to the Venezuelan government asking for help. You recently asserted there were flaws in the U.S. government’s case.
HT: I think the FBI belongs to the Justice Department and not to the judicial system. I think that Antonini was prepared [by the FBI] to ask certain questions, to name certain names, to give certain answers. This is something that is difficult to understand for Argentineans, because in Argentina, if our Justice Department prepared a witness, the case would be invalidated. Nor can you prepare a letter to the head of a foreign government and ask your witness to sign it, as apparently happened here.

JJ: You’ve said it’s notable that the case originated in Miami.
HT: That’s right. In Miami, you can still find people who see the world like another 1960s Cold War. People who just don’t get the idea of [independent] Latin American democracies, and see all Latin America the way they see Cuba. I think the [political] environment in Miami is very much influenced by the Cuban and Venezuelan exile communities.

JJ: But many other Americans are made uncomfortable by the actions and words of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
HT: Venezuela is a close friend of Argentina and an important country in Latin America. Chavez works with the new generation of democratic leaders — Brazil’s Lula, Chile’s Bachelet. No one can ignore Venezuela’s importance.

JJ: Yet Chavez has been accused of anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic outbursts. This worries many U.S. Jews.
HT: We thought this was a problem we could help with. In fact, just two months ago, at request of [our] Jewish community, a group of Jews from the United States, along with members of the Venezuelan Jewish community and help from our president, Christina Fernandez Kirchner, intervened with Chavez and asked him to receive a delegation of Jews [from both countries]. I was there to prepare the meeting, it was a very good meeting, and we are already seeing favorable results.

JJ: But Chavez is outspokenly allied with Iran, which Argentina holds responsible for the 1990s terror bombings against Jewish and Israeli buildings in Buenos Aires that killed well over 100 people.
HT: In Argentina, we don’t think that one country has to base its relationship with another country on a relationship which that country has with a third nation.

JJ: Speaking of which, how would you describe Argentina’s present relationship with the United States?
HT: Very good. We cooperate very closely on anti-terrorism, abating the drug trade and human trafficking and many other issues. Last year, America was the largest overseas investor in Argentina.

JJ: And in the future, how do you see our relations going?
HT: We’d like to have America’s continuing support of the growth of democracy in Latin America — whatever the immediate results. Not so much of specific governments as of the democratic process in general. That’s what’s important.

JJ: You are the son of one of your country’s great modern heroes. You were 22 when he was arrested. How do you best remember him?
HT: I’m afraid I didn’t learn enough from my father. I know that somehow I love him even more than I admire him. But most of all, I remain loyal to his ideals.