BUENOS AIRES – During a recent visit to Argentina by the Prime Minister of Spain, President Alberto Fernández tried to connect with his guest by paying tribute to Argentina’s European immigrant heritage.
Instead of making a statement that was widely considered xenophobic and offensive, Mr. Fernández to offend at home and across Latin America – including in the region’s most powerful nations.
“Mexicans came from indigenous peoples, Brazilians came out of the jungle, but we Argentines arrived by boat. On boats from Europe, ”Fernández said on Wednesday during a televised broadcast alongside Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who was visiting Buenos Aires.
“He forgets the millions of people who were abducted from Africa in three centuries, precisely by the Europeans, of whom Fernández is so proud to be a descendant,” Jeff Nascimento, a human rights activist and lawyer in São Paulo, Brazil, wrote on Twitter.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, a member of Congress and son of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, called the statement racist and mocked the state of the Argentine economy, which has been in a recession for years.
“Argentina is a sinking ship,” he wrote.
The president, Mr Bolsonaro, also responded with scorn by tweeting the word “JUNGLE!” and the Brazilian flag along with a photo of himself and a group of natives.
Argentines have long had a reputation in Latin America for considering themselves separate from others in the region, in part because of the large percentage of the country’s population that traces its origins to European settlers, mainly from Spain and Italy. Its neighbor, Brazil, is a majority in black and native country.
Now a generation of young researchers in Argentina, including black scholars, are questioning the country’s national narrative, saying it is both racist and erasing the presence of Argentines with indigenous and black roots.
Mexican actor Gael García Bernal said Mr Fernández’s remark “perpetuates the damaging narrative of extractivist colonialism” and lamented that it reflects a view that “unfortunately is very common.”
Fernández, a left-wing leader who was elected in 2019 and has previously drawn criticism over gaffs, attributed the quote to Mr Paz.
The actual quote from Mr. Paz is: “Mexicans are descended from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas and Argentines from boats.”
Mr. Fernández seems to have confused the Paz quote with the lyrics to a song that became popular in the 1980s by rock singer Litto Nebbia, as Mr. Fernández admires and has described as a “friend”. The president’s quote was taken almost verbatim from the song.
The remark overshadowed the agenda for the meeting of heads of state, which focused on trade negotiations and vaccine diplomacy.
Following the criticism, Fernández wrote on Twitter:
“I did not go out to insult, but in any case, if anyone felt offended or invisible, I offer an apology.”
But he added, “It has been said more than once that ” Argentines come from boats. ‘ Mr Fernández continued: “In the first half of the 20th century, we received more than five million immigrants living among our natives. Our diversity is a source of pride.”
Daniel Police reported from Buenos Aires. Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro.