By Bala Chambers
LONDON (AA) – Argentina’s president set off a firestorm Wednesday on Twitter after making racially insensitive comments that triggered a racial debate.
Alberto Fernandez made the remarks to visiting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez while seeking to highlight Argentina's ties with Europe.
"Octavio Paz once wrote that the Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came from the jungle, but we Argentines came from the ships. And they were ships that came from Europe," said Fernandez in reference to the swathes of European migrants who settled in Argentina.
According to the Argentine newspaper Perfil, Fernandez appeared to quote the phrase mentioning Brazilians from a song by his friend Argentine musician Litto Nebbia but attributed it to Mexican poet Octavio Paz.
In Argentina, Fernandez's comments struck a nerve for Alejandro Ariel Vilca, an indigenous activist in the Socialist Workers' Party and part of the Coya community.
"Like millions, I did not come from Europe. I am proudly Coya. Your words are an offense to the native peoples," Vilca said on Twitter, denouncing Fernandez's comments.
The news also had a wide impact across social media, with news media from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico condemning the comments.
Brazil's daily newspaper Folha described the remarks as "racist.”
Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took the opportunity to share a picture of himself on Twitter with members of an indigenous community while his third son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, took a verbal shot at the center-left Fernandez.
"Won't they say that he was racist against the indigenous and African peoples who formed Brazil?" said Eduardo Bolsonaro on Twitter, while also describing Argentina as a "ship that is sinking."
A Mexican journalist based in Argentina, Cecilia Gonzalez, questioned the president’s remarks, describing them on Twitter as "odd" that "Alberto Fernandez repeats in front of Pedro Sanchez the stereotype that Argentines come from ships and that they came from Europe. I believed that this false idea was already overcome, especially in this government."
But Gonzalez noted that the meeting between the two leaders was positive in terms of establishing the International Monetary Fund’s support for Argentina and fostering solidarity to combat the global coronavirus pandemic, adding that an "unfortunate phrase overshadows the rest."
Fernandez has since apologized for his remarks, stating that he is proud of Argentina's diversity.
"I did not mean to offend anyone. In any case, whoever has felt offended or invisible, I offer my apologies," said Fernandez on Twitter.