On 2nd October, the Argentine naval training vessel ARA Frigate Libertad was seized by Ghanaian authorities when it docked in the port of Tema on the first stop of what was meant to be a diplomatic trip down the west coast of Africa. The order to detain the ship was issued by the Commercial Court of Accra, ruling in favour of the Cayman Islands-based hedge fund NML Capital. The group claims it is owed US$370m by the Argentine government.
When the case was brought to court on 9th October, Argentina’s claims that the Libertad, as a military vessel, was immune from any foreign court’s jurisdiction were rejected by NML Capital’s lawyer Ace Anan Ankomah, who stated that Argentina “had already forfeited the immunity associated with this dispute by virtue of its debt.”
‘Vulture Funds’ and the 2001 Crisis
NML Capital, a subsidiary of the investment organisation Elliot Capital Management founded by North American businessman Paul Singer, bought Argentine bonds at a discount during the economic crisis in the hopes of being paid back in full when the economy recovered. The Argentine government defaulted on US$100bn of its debts in 2001, stating it was economically impossible to meet them.
Argentina restructured its debt in 2005, extending to its creditors an offer of about 30 cents on the dollar. In 2010 President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner repeated the offer to investors who had initially rejected it, thus settling 93% of claims against the Argentine government. A handful of so-called “vulture funds”, however, including NML Capital, continue seeking to be paid in full.
“Between 2005 and 2010, 93% of debt was renegotiated with creditors, leaving 5% in the hands of vulture funds dedicated to extorting countries by buying their debt for small change and with usurious methods demanding payment beyond all logic”, said Foreign Affairs Minister Hector Timerman in a press conference on 26th October.
The predicament of the Libertad is nothing new for Argentina; since 2004, vulture funds have attempted to seize 28 of the nation’s assets, including state-owned property abroad, artwork, the weather satellite Acquarius, and even the presidential airplane, known as ‘Tango 01’. The Argentine government, so far, has won all these cases after lengthy judicial processes in foreign courts.
This most recent injunction issued by the Ghanaian court referred to the Argentine government’s refusal to pay US$1.7bn in judgements awarded to NML Capital by New York District Judge Thomas Griesa in February.
The South American nation is not the only target of Singer and Elliot Capital Management. In the late 1990’s the company, through its subsidiary Kensington International Inc., purchased US$32.6m in loan debt incurred by the Republic of Congo for about US$2.3m, according to Bloomberg News. When the African nation said that it could not pay, the British High Court awarded Kensington US$39m to be paid from the country’s oil sales.
In the early ‘90s, Singer and Elliot Management purchased US$20m worth of Peruvian debt for only $11.4m, in a situation closely paralleling that of Argentina’s. When Peru was forced to restructure its debt, Elliot Management sued for full payment plus interest on its investments. The Peruvian government ultimately agreed to pay the US$56.3m awarded to Elliot Management by a Belgian court, nearly quintuple its initial investment.
“Our primary goal is to find bankruptcy situations where our ability to control or influence the process is the driver of value. That’s our favourite”, Singer told Bloomberg Markets in 2008.
Singer, who serves as a board member for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Harvard Medical School, and the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, among others, is a prominent donor to the US Republican Party, and donated US$1m to the super PAC Restore Our Future, Inc., in support of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It was revealed last month by The Nation that in 2011 Ann Romney, the former candidate’s wife and would-be First Lady, had invested US$1m in Elliot Capital Management.
Dialogue, Civil or Otherwise
Since the Libertad’s detainment over a month ago, delegates from Argentina have engaged in dialogue with Ghanaian authorities regarding the ship’s release, even bringing the matter to the attention of the United Nations. On 22nd October, Timerman met with Gert Rosenthal, president of the UN Security Council (of which Argentina will be a member beginning in January), although Rosenthal implied that it was not the Security Council’s place to intervene.
Ghanaian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alhaji Mumuni discussed the debacle, stating “It is true that as a nation and, particularly this ministry, we feel very embarrassed about it, especially given the fact that this trip was arranged through diplomatic channels and we have excellent relations with Argentina. But there’s nothing we can do about it because we are a nation of laws”, he told Vibe Ghana, referring to NML Capital’s use of the nation’s courts to detain the vessel.
On the same day as Timerman’s trip to the UN, the Navy confirmed that 281 members of the 326-strong crew would return to Buenos Aires on an Air France charter flight. Two days later the sailors were escorted by local police and members of the armed forces from the Libertad to the airport, in a scene Clarin reporters described as reminiscent of a “secret service” operation. They arrived in Ezeiza International Airport minutes after midnight on Thursday, 25th October.
A skeleton crew of 45 sailors including the captain, however, remains aboard the Libertad indefinitely, and tensions are escalating after over a month of being forcibly moored in Tema. On 10th October Port Authority officials were met by armed Argentine sailors when they attempted to board the Libertad to discuss moving the ship to another, less commercially important berth. It is estimated that the Libertad has been costing the port about US$60,000 per day in lost revenue.
The Port Authority of Tema has stated that as of Monday 12th November, the ship will remain without power, water, or fuel supplies. According to La Nación, the confrontation and the Port’s subsequent decision to cut the ship’s power have prompted the Ministry of Defence to consider whether or not to send a new contingent of sailors to relieve those who have been there for over 40 days.
Timerman and Minister of Defence Arturo Puricelli stated in a press conference on Monday that if the Libertad was not released by Ghanaian authorities upon the embargo’s expiration on Tuesday 13th November, they would have to take the case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
The government has remained steadfast in its decision not to pay the US$20m bond that Ghanaian judges say would free the ship, despite the pleas of some sailors to do so.
Fernando Morales of the Navy League told Radio 10 “Forty-four men have been there for a long time now and it is not a normal situation.”
What do Argentines think about the situation the Frigate Libertad is in? Click here to find out.