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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-04-2022 00:02

Argentina still hostage to a psychodrama

Cristina’s legal difficulties have dominated Argentine politics for many years. No doubt they will continue to do so for some time to come.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has long insisted that the country’s legal system is undemocratic because it lets magistrates hardly anybody has ever heard of overrule the elected representatives of the people. For well over a decade she and her supporters have been doing their utmost to put an end to this scandalous state of affairs which, as far as they are concerned, amounts to a judicial dictatorship. Though they failed to ram through the sweeping constitutional reforms they said would be necessary to turn Argentina into a genuine democracy, by making the most of the many legal loopholes that exist, they have succeeded in keeping Cristina beyond the reach of those judges and prosecutors who would dearly like to see her properly tried and, as most assume would then happen, condemned to many years behind bars for pocketing, together with her cronies, zillions of dollars or euros when she allegedly incarnated the will of the people.

However, unluckily for Cristina, the war that is being waged on her behalf, by the executive and legislative branches of government against the judicial one, is finally running out of steam. To the surprise of many, the Supreme Court is refusing to cave in and do her bidding. As the remarkable political power she once wielded steadily declines, so too is the willingness of other members of the Judiciary to obey orders emanating from the Kirchnerite high command.

The way things are going, if judges had to stand for election like common or garden politicians as Cristina’s followers say they should, more and more would feel obliged to promise voters they would do their level best to ensure that she spends the rest of her days locked up. Like their counterparts in many other countries, most have always had a healthy respect for public opinion; when the winds start blowing in a new direction, they are quick to alter course.

Cristina and her friends know this all too well, which is why they are getting desperate. The frantic turmoil surrounding the Supreme Court’s belated takeover of the Council of Magistrates, the body entrusted with the selection of judges and the firing of those found wanting, is due entirely to her awareness that her foes are beginning to break through the defences she has thrown up to save herself from being sent to jail. The situation she finds herself in would be different if, at worst, she had been guilty of a few administrative misdemeanours of the kind that got many minor officials into hot water after the government they worked for lost power, but it so happens that there is overwhelming evidence that she and her cronies had indulged in looting on a large scale when they imagined they could get away with it. As undemocratic as it may seem to them, in law-abiding societies several million votes may count for less than a single judge’s verdict.

Unless Cristina somehow manages to win back the support of the many who in Peronist strongholds, such as the Buenos Aires Province slum belt, are drifting away from her because they blame the government she put together, and not the previous one, for the hardships they are suffering, she will have to choose between facing whatever the law has in store for people like her and finding a bolt-hole in a friendly country which is run by individuals who would be most reluctant to extradite her. She still has some available, but Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Russia are not places a person like her would find attractive.

Cristina’s legal difficulties have dominated Argentine politics for many years. No doubt they will continue to do so for some time to come. Meanwhile, the country, which is governed by people who seem far more interested in her personal problems than in anything else and is led by a man who clearly fears her far more than the prospect of going down in history as a ridiculous lightweight, is sliding deeper into an economic and social morass from which it will find it terribly hard to extricate itself. No matter what policies are eventually adopted, for them to make any difference the government responsible for applying them would have to possess a high degree of moral and intellectual authority. This is something Alberto Fernández and his ministers self-evidently lack.

When Alberto was elected, it was widely assumed that he would quickly start consolidating his own power at Cristina’s expense, much as Néstor Kirchner had done when he suddenly put distance between himself and Eduardo Duhalde, the man who in effect had handed him the presidency only to find himself cut down to size by his protégé. After all, this is what any self-respecting politician is expected to do, but, as Cristina well knew, Alberto lacked the leadership qualities he would have needed for him to free himself from his patroness and purge the government of all the many fervent Kirchnerites that occupied key positions in it and soon made it their business to thwart the efforts of those they considered disloyal.

Had he been so inclined, when the Covid pandemic was in its early stages, Alberto could have replaced office-holders beholden to Cristina with others likely to prove more trustworthy. After he was shown sitting down looking presidential, while flanked by the Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff, his popularity soared to about 80 percent, but he did nothing. Another opportunity came when Cristina rebelled against the not-that-demanding deal reached by Economy Minister Martín Guzmán with the International Monetary Fund; he let it pass. Alberto is now refusing to take advantage of the almighty row that is raging over the Council of Magistrates. Instead of telling the Kirchnerites where to get off, he is bending over backwards to appease them.

In retrospect, something like this was always bound to happen. Cristina asked Alberto – who for a while had enjoyed himself subjecting her to barrage after barrage of criticism – to be her standard-bearer in the 2019 elections not because she thought he had the makings of a good president but because she knew he was a hollow man who, after abasing himself by accepting what she offered him, would never dare to defy her. Just what is behind the stranglehold she has over Alberto is a matter for speculation, but it seems to be something psychological rather than evidence of wrongdoing she could use to discredit him, should the occasion arise. Whatever it is, the relationship between the pair of them is having a disastrous influence on the country. ​

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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