Gaffe-prone Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi became embroiled in a row with Argentina on Wednesday after making a joke about the South American’s country’s 1976 to 1983 dictatorship.
Buenos Aires reacted furiously and summoned the Italian ambassador after hearing of Berlusconi’s remarks alluding to “death flights” in which political prisoners were drugged and dumped into the sea from planes.
The Argentine government “voiced its displeasure and unease at the quotes attributed to Berlusconi” during a meeting with Italy’s ambassador in Buenos Aires, Stefano Ronca, a Argentine foreign ministry source said.
“Ronca said the statements were being verified and agreed to inform the government [swiftly],” the source said.
The remarks in question were made last Friday when Berlusconi attended an electoral meeting in Sardinia.
In remarks that now appear on YouTube, Berlusconi refers to “that Argentine dictator who did away with his opponents by taking them up in an airplane with a soccer ball, then opened the door and said: ‘It’s a nice day outside, go and play.’ It’s funny, but it’s dramatic.”
An estimated 30,000 people went missing and are presumed dead during the last Argentine dictatorship, including at least 100 Italian nationals.
Argentina and Italy normally have close and cordial relations. More than half of all Argentines are descended from Italian immigrants.
The row escalated later on Wednesday when the Italian government issued its own statement, describing the reaction of Buenos Aires as “a slanderous attack” on Berlusconi that was “totally unjustified” and had incurred Rome’s “wrath.”
It said the row was being blown out of all proportion and that Berlusconi’s words had been completely twisted when it was clear he “was underlining the brutality of the ‘death flights’ of the Argentine dictatorship.”
“It’s a misunderstanding,” an Italian government source said. “The head of government wanted to underline the cruelty of the crimes committed against the opposition and the tragedy of those who disappeared, in order to explain the extent to which he himself was offended and insulted when opponents compare him to Hitler or Videla.”
Jorge Rafael Videla was the leader of the 1976 coup in Argentina and led the military dictatorship for the next five years when repression of the opposition reached a peak.
Berlusconi is no stranger to gaffes.
Only last month he came under a hail of criticism after he said he wished there were enough soldiers to protect “beautiful girls” from rape.
The remarks came after two rapes in the Rome area prompted Berlusconi to announce his government would increase to 30,000 the number of soldiers helping police patrol the streets of crime-prone Italian cities.
Last year he offended Spanish female politicians when he said the new government of nine women and eight men was “too pink” and would “be hard to manage.”