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Gun fails inches from Argentine vice president’s face in shooting attempt

Argentina President Alberto Fernández on Sept. 1 condemned the attempted assassination of Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Thousands of Argentines gathered in Buenos Aires and cities and towns around the country on Friday to show support for controversial Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner hours after a man pointed a handgun in her face and, authorities say, pulled the trigger.

The gun did not fire and Kirchner, a former president, first lady and senator, escaped the confrontation outside her home shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday physically unharmed. President Alberto Fernández called it the “most serious incident to happen since we recovered democracy” four decades ago.

A suspect was detained immediately. Authorities have not described possible motives.

Video footage from multiple angles captured a man pointing a firearm at Kirchner’s head in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where the vice president’s supporters had gathered Thursday evening to express their support as she faces corruption charges. Some footage appears to capture the weapon making a clicking sound.

A 35-year-old Brazilian man, Fernando Andres Sabag Montiel, was taken into custody, Argentina’s security minister said. Fernández said the gun was loaded with five bullets and the man pulled the trigger.

“We are facing an event that has an extreme institutional and human seriousness,” the president said in a midnight address to the nation. “Our vice president has been attacked.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States “strongly condemns the assassination attempt on Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.”

“We stand with the Argentine government and people in rejecting violence and hate.”

While authorities investigated, Fernández, the president, declared a national holiday to allow Argentines to show their support in the streets. His cabinet invited them to “express themselves with Argentine flags in defense of democracy and solidarity with the vice president.”

Television showed gatherings in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo, the capital’s historic central square, and public spaces around the country. There was a strong police presence in Recoleta, the upscale neighborhood in northern Buenos Aires on the Río de la Plata.

Fernández announced a meeting with representatives from sectors of the country Friday afternoon to “build a broad consensus against hate speech and violence.”

The conservative former president, Mauricio Macri, whom Fernández and Kirchner defeated in 2019, said “this grave incident demands immediate and profound clarification by the justice system and security forces.” Kirchner, although Fernández’s running mate, was the more prominent of two in the 2019 election.

Kirchner, a leftist leader of Argentina’s populist Peronista movement, was the country’s president from 2007 to 2015. She was first lady from 2003 to 2007, during the presidency of her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, and a senator before and after her own presidency. She is facing trial on corruption charges.

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Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, expressed his solidarity after the attack. “I pray that social harmony and respect for democratic values ​​always prevail in beloved Argentina, against all kinds of violence and aggression,” he said in a statement.

Kirchner’s lawyer, Gregorio Dalbón, called the incident “an assassination attempt,” and urged the Argentine justice system to respond swiftly. “Hate and violence end badly.”

It was not immediately clear whether Sabag Montiel had legal representation.

Argentina’s legislature, which is controlled by Kirchner allies, planned to create a special committee to investigate the incident.

Kirchner, a divisive figure in Argentine politics, could be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison if convicted in a corruption scheme involving public contracts. She has denied involvement; she and her allies have called the prosecution “political persecution.”

Axel Kicillof, the governor of Buenos Aires province and a Kirchner ally, called the attack “one of the worst episodes in our history.”

“Those who insist on persecuting, inciting violence, and even calling for the death penalty must stop now. You cannot continue to promote hatred and violence,” he wrote.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tweeted “All my solidarity to my friend Cristina Kirchner, a victim of a fascist criminal who did not know how to respect differences and diversity.” Lula, a fellow leftist, led Brazil when Kirchner became president of Argentina.

“Cristina is a woman who deserves the respect of any democrat in the world,” he tweeted. “Thank God she escaped unharmed.”

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Relations between Brazil and Argentina have chilled during Fernández’s presidency. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has called Kirchner and Fernández “leftist bandits,” and his son, Eduardo, has echoed calls by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R- Tex.) to impose sanctions against Kirchner for alleged corruption. Da Silva is running against Bolsonaro in this year’s presidential election.

Bolsonaro said Friday he “lamented” the attack on Kirchner. He said he had sent a note.

“Despite my differences with the Argentine vice president, I do not wish that for her,” he said during a campaign event in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazilian media reported. “I hope that the fact is duly investigated. And luckily the guy did not know how to handle a firearm. Let everything be cleared up in Argentina. We regret this episode.”

There was no immediate evidence that the attempted shooting was politically motivated. Fernández, the president, asked the judge investigating the case to ensure the safety of the alleged attacker while in custody.

Argentina is suffering one of the world’s most severe inflation crises, with interest rates of around 70 percent. The country has cycled through three economy ministers since July.

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A rift on how to address the economic crisis has divided Kirchner and the president. Kirchner has championed a universal basic income, while Fernández has appointed economic policymakers who lean toward austerity.

Kirchner’s husband is credited with helping navigate Argentina out of economic collapse two decades ago. Together they built an economic movement defined by heavy-handed economic intervention and growth, but her legacy has been marred by accusations of graft.