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The Man Argentines Love To Hate Is An American Judge

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on December 4, 2014 11:32 am

For an American, it probably would be a really hard Jeopardy question, but in Argentina, pretty much anyone you stop can answer this: Who is the judge in New York at the center of Argentina's default crisis?

Pablo de Luca, a systems engineer walking along a downtown Buenos Aires street recently responded easily: Judge Thomas P. Griesa.

"Griesa is an enemy for us," he says.

Georgina Segui, an office secretary stopped while she was doing errands, also knew the answer.

"We are constantly bombarded on TV with the name Griesa, Griesa, Griesa," she said.

One of the main people doing the "bombarding" is Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez.

"No financial vulture nor judicial raptor is going to extort money from this president," she said in her most recent speech.

In Argentina, posters with his image, with a vulture on his back, have been pasted up along the streets. There also have been endless articles about the judge, whose office declined to speak with NPR.

The Argentine media constantly cite a little-known U.S. website called The Robing Room, where lawyers give anonymous reviews of the judges they appear before. Griesa's weren't exactly complimentary to begin with, and since the Argentina case exploded into the headlines, others have written in, excoriating him for his rulings. In Argentina, the comments have been taken as evidence that he is unfit for the job.

"These things happen, and all of a sudden these people become household names," says Alan Cibils, the chair of the political economy department at the National University of General Sarmiento in Buenos Aires.

In many ways, rightly or wrongly, Cibils says, Griesa has become a symbol in Argentina of all the problems of the international financial system. He notes that whatever you think of Griesa's position, his rulings were supported by the U.S. appeals court, and the Supreme Court refused to hear Argentina's case.

So this is the backstory to the unlikely infamy of a federal judge in his 80s who reportedly plays the harpsichord: Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001, essentially declaring bankruptcy and saying it couldn't pay its creditors. At the time, Ciblis says, so-called vulture hedge funds swooped in and bought Argentina's bonds — some of which were issued in New York — for pennies on the dollar.

"These guys really are bottom feeders: They go out there, they buy bonds of countries as they are about to default or after they've defaulted, and then cash in — or litigate to cash in — on the full amount," says Ciblis.

Griesa's ruling supporting their claims has had far-reaching effects: Some countries, including Mexico, have changed the language in new bond contracts to make it harder for vulture funds to target them — and according to Ciblis, developing nations are less likely to issue their bonds in New York, where they might be vulnerable to one judge's opinions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Argentina's economy is in trouble. The currency is falling. Inflation is rising. Earlier this year, the government defaulted on its debt, refusing to pay some of its creditors after a court ruling in New York. A court ruling in New York - turns out that a relatively little-known U.S. federal judge has now found himself at the center of an international financial crisis. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Buenos Aires.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: So I'm on the street in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and pretty much if you stop almost anyone and you ask them this question, they'll know the answer. So who is the judge in New York that everyone talks about here? Pablo de Luca is a systems engineer, and he responded easily. Judge Thomas P. Griesa or Griesa, as it's pronounced in Spanish.

PABLO DE LUCA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Griesa is an enemy for us, he says.

GEORGINA SEGUI: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Georgina Segui is an office secretary who says we are constantly bombarded on TV with the name Griesa, Griesa, Griesa. One of the main people doing the bombarding is Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez. In her most recent speech, she had this to say about Judge Griesa and the dispute with the hedge funds Argentina owes money to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT CRISTINA FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No financial vulture, no judicial raptor is going to extort money from this president she said. In Argentina, there have been endless articles about the judge who's in his 80s and reportedly plays the harpsichord. His office declined to speak with NPR. The Argentine articles constantly cite a little-known U.S. website called the Robing Room where lawyers give anonymous reviews of the judges they appear before. Griesa's weren't exactly complementary, and they have been taken as evidence in Argentina that he is unfit for the job.

ALAN CIBILS: These things happen and, all of a sudden, these people become household names.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alan Cibils is the chair of the Political Economy Department at the National University of General Sarmiento in Buenos Aires. He says, rightly or wrongly in many ways in Argentina, Griesa has become a symbol of all the problems of the international financial system. He notes that whatever you think of Griesa's position, though, his rulings were supported by the appeals court, and the Supreme Court refused to hear Argentina's case.

Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001. A default is basically when a country declares bankruptcy and can't pay its creditors. At the time, Cibils says, so-called vulture hedge funds swooped in and bought Argentina's bonds, some of which were issued in New York for pennies on the dollar.

CIBILS: These guys really are bottom feeders. They go out there, they buy bonds of countries as they are about to default or after they've defaulted and then cash in or litigate to cash in on the full amount.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Griesa's ruling supported their claims and has had far-reaching effects. Countries like Mexico have now changed the language in new bond contracts to make it harder for vulture funds to target them. And developing nations are less likely, according to Cibils, to issue their bonds in New York where they might be vulnerable to one judge's opinions. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.