It was the spring of 2010, when Argentina was high on the commodities boom. I had been invited to a dinner party by a journalist who knows pretty well everybody and almost everything. He was welcoming me back to Argentina after many years in exile.
I don’t know why, but the journalist in question had also invited a group of top businessmen, who looked at me rather strangely. Eventually they forgot I was there and began to talk among themselves.
I was astonished by what I heard. They were exchanging notes about a shared experience. Each one had been summoned to the Casa Rosada where the previous president, the late Néstor Kirchner, told them exactly what percentage of their company revenues they were expected to donate to the coffers in order to avoid any problems.
I was shocked but not surprised. I knew from my 20 years working as a journalist in Buenos Aires that corruption was endemic. Yet I also knew – from the many failed attempts in the past I’d made to persuade people to denounce bribery through publishing a story in the Buenos Aires Herald – that there was no point in me suggesting such a thing to this particular group of businessmen, or anyone else in their situation. I also noted that Néstor had vastly increased the amount that had to be paid if they wanted to do business. If I remember correctly, I think it was 20 percent.
I knew, too, that the media were constantly coming under attack. A few years earlier I had been part of a mission of the Inter American Press Association, which had looked into the subtle and more aggressive not-so unsubtle assaults on the press that characterised the Kirchner administration almost from the get go. Of specific concern was an all-out effort by the Kirchners’ press enforcers to destroy the Editorial Perfil publishing company by blocking its advertising revenue. The plan was to kill off Noticias, the weekly newsmagazine owned by Editorial Perfil which had made a name for itself with investigative journalism and frank commentary during the presidency of Carlos Menem.
Unexplained movements of money from Santa Cruz were already a topic of conversation among many. Néstor, rising on the political ladder from mayor to governor, and with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner climbing in Congress, had established almost total control over the province.
When our mission visited Government House to see the president, he dodged any discussion of our concerns by meeting us in the corridor outside his office. There he rapidly shook hands with us all, said he had to leave for another engagement and sped away. We were left in the unctuous presence of Alberto Fernández, Kirchner’s Cabinet chief, who was spectacularly evasive.
However, I did manage to challenge him about reports of millions of dollars that had been allegedly been transferred from the provincial treasury in Santa Cruz to Switzerland. That money, perhaps as much as US$500 million according to reports, is still unaccounted for.
It was a warning of what was to come, but I never imagined that the ruthless avarice and ambition of Néstor and Cristina would lead to the point where they seemed to be stealing anything – and everything – there was to steal.
Most astonishing, and dismaying, of all was the lack of response from ordinary people to the efforts of journalists to draw attention to what was going on. There could have been no more graphic coverage of the corruption than videos of Kirchner minions counting dollars that were shown on television. The Clarin Group led the counter-attack, hiring Jorge Lanata, who devised a Sunday television programme called Periodismo para todos (“Journalism for Everyone”), which mixed satire and tough investigative journalism to report on the looting of the nation.
Cases of corruption, of downright robbery, were featured on national television, handing judges evidence on a plate. Mr. Lanata and other journalists succeeded in getting major figures in the cash-smuggling rings to own up and become witnesses. But, with just a few exceptions, the exposure of a mafia-like system to secure cash kickbacks on government contracts for public works projects merely demonstrated that the official miscreants had impunity.
Then something that could make a difference happened. Jorge Bacigalupo, a retired police sergeant who was disgusted by the thievery he witnessed throughout the years, realised that he had in his hands detailed information that would expose the Kirchners’ pecuniary debauchery. Oscar Centeno, an old friend he got to know when working as a limousine driver, had given him a box for safekeeping. Inside it were eight notebooks in which Mr. Centeno, once a driver for the federal Planning Ministry, wrote about his ‘work’ delivering the proceeds of kickbacks paid by construction and energy companies. In scrupulous detail, Mr. Centeno noted exactly when, where and how he delivered millions of dollar bills stashed in canvas bags to the Kirchners’ private residence in Recoleta, to Government House, to the presidential residence in Olivos and to the offices of other public officials. Working from the figures in the notebooks, Mr. Centeno appears to have delivered more than US$50 million dollars, though the judge in charge of the case has estimated the amount of money involved could be as high as US$160 million. (Readers who would like more detail should follow the work of Santiago O’Donnell, a truly independent journalist who describes it all in often hilarious detail. It’s like a Netflix series.)
Mr. Bacigalupo is an assiduous reader of La Nación who read and admired the work of Diego Cabot, a journalist who has reported for at least a decade on corruption. He formed a relationship with the reporter and eventually handed him the box of notebooks. He told the newspaper he decided to hand over the notebooks “for the good of the country,” expanding on this by saying: “These people [the Kirchners] have taken everything. The problem is not those who are here, but those who will come back if they are not stopped in some way.” This time around three factors have combined to great effect: a man with moral indignation, an experienced journalist and a prosecutor and judge who did not flinch. Mr. Cabot checked all the dates, times and destinations in the notebooks, copied them all and handed them to Judge Claudio Bonadio.
Seriously, I believe this could mark a change in Argentina. Today, if a group of businessmen sat around talking about the bribes they were expected to pay and I heard them, perhaps this time around I could do something about it.
Perhaps we should curb our enthusiasm, but I can’t help feeling that journalists and judges can now do their work and that people are waking up from a nightmare of deception and corruption. When president, Néstor Kirchner often said that he wanted Argentina to become “a normal country.” I’ll settle for a decent country. Now, perhaps, it’s possible.