BUENOS AIRES – As a Brazilian journalist living in Argentina, Luciana Taddeo says she spends ever-more effort rebutting ever-crazier rumors.
There were claims that Argentina's presidential palace had been invaded, that people had to leave keys in their cars' ignitions so the government could use them at any time, that the government had abolished the right to inherit properties.
“Journalists have been forced to dedicate more and more time to say, ‘Look, this isn’t real, this isn’t happening,'" she said.
Many of those rumors have been fanned by the presidential election in neighboring Brazil, where incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro has turned Argentina — already a bitter soccer rival — into a sort of political boogeyman, a warning of the horrors his nation could face if it elects leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro's campaign began its nightly ad slot on national television with a blast at Argentina's left-leaning leaders, who have been friendly with his election rival.
“In Argentina, the leftist candidate that Lula supports also promised barbecue and beer for everybody,” said a voice as images showed people complaining of rising poverty and soaring inflation under center-left President Alberto Fernández.
Bolsonaro and his allies had long used another leftist neighbor — crisis-wracked Venezuela — as a cautionary tale, but shifted to Argentina after Fernández defeated center-right President Mauricio Macri — whom Bolsonaro favored — in 2019.
“Venezuela was far away and Brazilians didn’t understand it very much; it was a whole other universe,” said Paulo Pereira, 38, coordinator of da Silva’s campaign in Argentina. “Argentina is the country where many Brazilians go on their first international trip.”
While critics focus on Argentina's persistent high inflation and import controls, its per capita income still outstrips Brazil's, by World Bank measures at least, and both have relatively low poverty rates by global standards. Brazil's homicide rate is roughly four times higher than Argentina's.
They're roughly equal in their passion for soccer — and have a deep rivalry over it.
“Among Bolsonaro and his allies, there is almost an obsession related to Argentina,” said Andressa Caldas, 46, a Brazilian human rights lawyer who has lived in Argentina for eight years.
The president's lawmaker son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, used a trip to Argentina this month to take a swipe at Argentina's rampant inflation. In a video posted on his social media accounts, he is seen counting out dozens of bills to pay for a meal at a restaurant.
“Paying for lunch in Argentina,” he wrote on his Instagram account. “If you don’t want this for Brazil, vote Bolsonaro.”
The political rivalry is also personal. Bolsonaro in 2019 urged Argentines to vote for Macri rather than Fernández — who had ostentatiously visited da Silva in jail before convictions were thrown out by Brazil's Supreme Court.
“The ties were already poor, but the electoral context has been very bad for the bilateral relationship because it put political differences at the top of the agenda,” said Esteban Actis, an international relations professor at the National University of Rosario.
Brazilians living in Argentina largely agree there’s certainly plenty to criticize: galloping annual inflation of 83%, a stagnant economy and — just as in Brazil — poverty that affects roughly half of the nation’s children.
“The strange thing is that instead of focusing on the real problems that there are already so many of in Argentina, they have to exaggerate even more the situation, which is already serious,” Taddeo said.
Nattascha Dumke, a 30-year-old medical student who has lived in Argentina since 2018, has almost 80,000 followers on Instagram. She's accustomed to Brazilians asking about life in Argentina, but recently the tone of the questions has turned much more negative.
“People who want to live here, study here, and even the parents of students here are writing me,” Dumke said. “They ask me about violence, if supermarkets don’t have food, if we’re going hungry.”
Dumke became so exasperated by a viral video that claimed Argentina’s supermarkets were filled with empty shelves that she made her own video refuting the claims and showed fully stocked markets.
The woman who helped make the original empty-shelves video, 25-year-old Maria Laura Assis, pushed back against claims she was spreading falsehoods about Argentina to help Bolsonaro’s campaign.
“What I tell them is to go to the supermarkets and see for themselves,” said Assis, a Brazilian who has lived in Argentina for 15 years. “Today Argentina really does have a limit in the number of units of certain products you can buy and is suffering shortages of certain products due to the closure of imports.”
When Dumke published her video showing shelves full of products in several Buenos Aires supermarkets, many accused her of being the one spreading misinformation.
“Even using videos to try to show the reality of the country ... they don’t believe it,” Dumke said. “They’re not alarmed by receiving fake news, they only want to share disinformation for political ends.”