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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-03-2023 05:23

Convicted of corruption, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner remains as magnetic as ever

The vice-president has undoubtedly been the star of Argentina’s political ecosystem over the last couple of decades.

Like flying insects inevitably attracted to bright lights, we have an uncontrollable obsession with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Nearly magnetic. Every word she says or omits is analysed in incredible detail, much in the same way as the position of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Launer handbag or the facial gestures of Pope Francis. These interpretations lead to wild fabulations and conspiracy theories, elevating Cristina beyond mortal status – whether she’s the brightest star in the galaxy or the largest black hole. Her centrality makes it clear that her conviction of corruption at the hands of Federal Oral Court No. 2 has become one of the defining factors of the political field of play, which in a country like Argentina has everything to do with the economy and ultimately society, whether people care about it or not. Being considered a crook who took advantage of her long tenure to enrich herself at the expense of everyone else clashes directly with her projected image of champion for the poor and disadvantaged, unselfishly battling the powers that be, from the Imperialist Yankees to the white-collar assassins of the ravenous right, personified by Mauricio Macri. The conviction, together with her supporters’ claim that she has been “proscribed” (or banned) in the same way as the military dictatorship banished Peronism, are the latest addition to the myth of the leader that indicates she is the one and only leader of the movement and therefore the only one that can miraculously save them from impending doom. This translates into an electoral strategy that is much more pragmatic than the mythological construction that evidences at the same time her absolute importance and increasing obsolescence.

The more than 1,600 pages with which the court justified its decision to convict Fernández de Kirchner, businessman Lázaro Báez, and several other Kirchnerite officials of corruption in the “public works” case are sprinkled with strong language and what the judges believe to be irrefutable evidence. As explained in previous columns, the accusation stands on the founding of the Austral Construcciones firm by Báez in order to absorb public works funds in the province of Santa Cruz which were ultimately siphoned off illicitly into the pockets of those involved, namely Cristina and Lázaro. This case goes hand-in-hand with several other judicial investigations currently underway including the ‘Los Sáuces-Hotesur’ case (in which the Kirchner family is said to have received spurious funds from Báez and businessman Cristobal López through their hotels and real-estate investments), the ‘K money route’  case (in which Báez has been found guilty of laundering said alleged dirty money), and the infamous ‘Cuadernos’ corruption notebooks case (in which business leaders have admitted to paying bribes to the Kirchnerite ecosystem supposedly for electoral campaigning purposes).

The exorbitant growth in the net worth of the Kirchner family, the Báez family, and several other accomplices is truly staggering and suggests foul play, while the evidence is absolutely plausible. It is difficult to imagine that the Ks and their immediate circle were “the smartest guys in the room,” and even that they managed to be so successful in their business endeavours as a “side hustle,” while having the responsibility of governing the ungovernable Argentine Republic. In an interesting section of the judges’ argumentation they point to the complexity of having direct evidence in convoluted cases of corruption. It is one of defence’s main arguments: that there is no direct evidence linking CFK with corruption, and even that there is no proof of corruption. The judges make clear that the use of anecdotal and indirect evidence, coupled with technical and factual data, has been used to make an inference based on rational observation, logic, and common sense. It isn’t clear to me whether this means that such cases can be proven judicially, but the journalistic evidence is on the table and has been published for years, originally only by this publishing house.

This leads to another interesting point the judges touch on and is one of the main arguments of Fernández de Kirchner’s expensive legal team: that this case is part of an organised plot that uses the courts and mass media companies to politically persecute Cristina and other “progressive” leaders of the region (otherwise known as ‘lawfare’). They call it an “ad hoc” argument aimed at discrediting the tribunal and part of the usual strategy adopted by politicians of all signs and public servants accused of corruption who claim they are being persecuted to avoid facing justice, particularly in a country that is constantly in electoral mode. They ask why the defence, in particular Dr Carlos Beraldi who represented Fernández de Kirchner, failed to attempt to refute the evidence and instead focused, in bad faith, in attacking the tribunal and the prosecution. They directly mention the “attempt at proscription” and ironically make fun of the use of an Anglicism (“lawfare”) to lend credence to their cry of persecution.

Ultimately, Peronism’s electoral strategy has been tied to Cristina’s judicial problems — among other things — for quite some time now. Those other things include Kirchnerism’s unwillingness to become obsolete, despite what is an evident weakening of its circumstance, particularly when compared to moments of strength, such as when Fernández de Kirchner took the presidential election with 54 percent of the vote in 2011. She was forced to pair up with Alberto Fernández, whom she can’t stand anymore, to oust Mauricio Macri in 2019. And now, after yelling at the court and telling the nation she wouldn’t run for public office, her potential candidacy is the talk of the town (as is Macri’s). While Cristina may not be a being of superior intelligence, as many would lead us to believe, she is a cunning politician and understands how to play the game. Recent polls suggest she’s even lost popularity in the Buenos Aires Province, a bastion of Peronism in general and Kirchnerism in particular. The “proscription” claim is part of a strategy that pushes her to the centre of the stage as a sector of the Frente de Todos coalition clamours for her candidacy, in a direct response to Alberto’s claims that he wants to run in the PASO primaries. Both appear aimed at trying to retain as much power as possible in the face of an expected uphill battle that could see Economy Minister Sergio Massa lead the ticket in order to gain as many votes as possible despite being defeated. At least that’s a plausible scenario when looking at incredibly high rejection rates that both the vice-president and the president command, much like Macri and even Massa. CFK has surprised us several times before, and the opposition’s fragmentation could lead to a surprise result. Whatever may happen, Cristina is playing her game and will probably maximise her outcome, knowing it will be lower than she would like but sufficient to retain substantial power.

The vice-president has undoubtedly been the star of Argentina’s political ecosystem over the last couple of decades. And like every star it must go through a life cycle that starts in a nebula, can reach giant status, explode in a nebula and end in a black hole. She’s nowhere near done yet, but she’s definitely past her prime.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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