Like many Latin American politicians, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is an avid Twitter user. So what inspirational message did she send to her 3.5 million followers, just a few hours ago during an important trip to China, that quickly garnered thousands of retweets?
More like a highly offensive joke that poked fun at her host country. The tweet asked whether the more than 1,000 attendees at an event were there just for “rice and oil.” It was bad enough to imply that the country was only interested in Argentina for its resources, and to reference the stereotype that Chinese people primarily eat rice. But Kirchner went a step further, replacing all of the “r”s in her tweet with “l”s, a dig at Chinese-accented Spanish, turning “arroz” (rice) into “aloz” and “petróleo” (oil) to “petlóleo.”
She later tweeted a half-hearted apology that said, “Sorry, you know what? Humor is the only way to digest the ridiculousness and absurdity.” Of what, she did not say.
Kirchner has been sharing on Twitter many odd and oddly personal details of her trip since arriving in China on Feb. 3. “Upon arrival at the hotel, I was surprised by an I-M-P-R-E-S-S-I-V-E floral arrangement, both in size and beauty,” said one. Another: “On the weather: two degrees here, ideal for penguins. Good for China.”
The reaction to the gaffe in China will probably be muted. Twitter is blocked there, and mentions of Kirchner’s xenophobia are difficult to find on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent.
What’s more, the Chinese propaganda machine so far favors warm ties with Argentina. State-run Xinhua news agency ran an enthusiastic article (link in Chinese) on her tweets—albeit a few hours before the offensive one was sent out—mentioning all of her most laudatory statements about China. Tweets like, “Beijing, larger and more spectacular every time. This is my third visit, and I’m always surprised. Always more high-rises, more cars.”
The impact of her clumsy tweet will be felt mostly at home. While some Argentines on Twitter have reacted by continuing to make offensive jokes, the main response has been to shame her, or express feeling ashamed by her. All the while Kirchner is dealing with a national scandal surrounding the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman, a prosecutor who had accused her government of helping Iran to cover up its involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center. His death may have been a suicide, but speculation is rife that the government was somehow involved.
Even if the Chinese public doesn’t react, the Communist Party is surely aware of the offensive tweet. That could be problematic for Kirchner’s request that China continue to invest more in her country’s infrastructure and help bolster its flagging currency. And that would make her misstep worse for the people of Argentina than for anyone else.