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Argentina Minister Defends Kirchner's Offensive 'Chinese Accent' Tweet

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner mocked a stereotypical Chinese accent in a tweet during a visit to Beijing, but the gaffe didn't appear to hamper her government's aims at increasing strategic relations with China.

by Gaston Cavanagh
Feb 5 2015, 9:00pm

Photo by Wu Hong/AP

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina published a tweet mimicking a stereotypical Chinese accent during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, switching Rs with Ls in what she later called an attempt at humor, but which sparked critical coverage in the international press and embarrassment among social-media users back home.

Claims of racism bounced around in the hours that followed the Wednesday tweet, but the incident for many in Argentina mostly served as a reminder of the "love her or hate her" dynamic that exists around the president.

Kirchner this year ends her second term in office and currently faces a ballooning political scandal over the mysterious death of a prosecutor who accused her of a cover-up conspiracy related to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires.

In the polemical tweet, Kirchner replaced Rs with Ls in the words "arroz", or rice, and "petróleo," or petroleum. She also did so in the word "Cámpora," making it "Cámpola."

"More than 1,000 in attendance. Could they all be from La Cámpola, or did they just come for the lice and petloleum?" Kirchner wrote, in Spanish.

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La Cámpora is the youth wing of Kirchner's political party, which is led by her son Maximo Kirchner. The "rice and petroleum" reference is a take on the common Argentine saying: "They go for the choripan [a chorizo sandwich] and the Coca [Cola]."

That saying is used by Kirchner detractors to imply that citizens who attend Kirchner political rallies are not just there to offer moral support, but rather to receive compensation in the form of a meager meal. In short, Kirchner appeared to be making light of a domestic political joke against her.

She quickly followed up by tweeting, "Sorry," in English, and then in Spanish: "You know what? It's just that the excess of ridiculousness and absurdity is so great, that it can only be processed with humor. If not, it is very, very toxic."

"I love you forever," one user responded.

"This is our president," another wrote. "Let her stay in China!"

Kirchner's cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich defended her tweet, calling it an "expression of affection" for her Chinese counterpart. "President Xi Jinping has recognized the president as a friend," Capitanich said in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

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Jorge Capitanich answers a reporter's question over Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's controversial tweet.

Kirchner went to China seeking a boost for her country from the world's second-largest economy. The government sought Chinese investment for the construction of hydroelectric dams, as well as shale gas and oil extraction projects in the Vaca Muerta reservoir, which could help alleviate Argentina's energy woes.

Argentina has offered perks for investors from China, such as access to potassium and lithium reserves, which can be used to manufacture car batteries, and land in the Neuquén province to build a space station.

At the same time, Argentina's government is grappling with multiple corruption allegations, including claims against Vice President Amado Boudou over his acquisition of the country's only business that is capable of printing money, as well as swirling accusations surrounding the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18.

Kirchner initially suggested that Nisman's death was a suicide. She later back-tracked on that claim — yet still managed to cast herself as the victim as the crisis began growing.

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More recently, she accused Diego Lagomarsino, an employee of Nisman — lead prosecutor in the investigation into a possible state-orchestrated cover-up of Iranian involvement in the 1994 AIMA center bombing — of being a spy who maintained an "intimate" relationship with his boss.

Other unsettling news in the Nisman case rocked the country this week.

A draft of an arrest warrant for the president was discovered in the prosecutor's apartment on the day of his death, but the matter was only revealed on Monday. Kirchner has yet to directly address the discovery of the warrant draft.

Nisman's ex-wife, Sandra Arroyo Salgado, also claimed this week that she had received a copy of a magazine featuring Nisman on its cover, but marked with a drawing of a bullet hole on his picture.

Despite the backlash, Kirchner's tweet didn't appear to hamper her agenda in Beijing. Her delegation signed 15 cooperation agreements with Chinese counterparts. Xi made no public response to the "lice and petloleum" tweet. Twitter is one of many Western sites that are blocked in China.

"Zài jiàn," Kirchner tweeted as she left the country on Thursday. That's Mandarin for "good-bye," and no Ls or Rs were harmed in the process.

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Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter @GastonCavanagh.