Much to the indignation of President Alberto Fernández, the murder of Fabián Gutiérrez – a Kirchner family retainer who quickly rose from modest beginnings to become a multimillionaire but then, when the political climate changed, turned state witness and started telling prosecutors how his employers had managed their complicated financial affairs – has brought corruption back into the political spotlight. For understandable reasons, he hopes it does not stay there for long.
As everybody knows, Alberto owes his job to his willingness to make out that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president who gave it to him, is completely innocent of the many highly plausible charges that have been levelled against her. So when opposition leaders said it would be wrong for the Gutiérrez case to remain in the hands of the Santa Cruz province public prosecutor Natalia Mercado who, as luck would have it, happens to be Cristina’s niece, Alberto exploded in anger. How dare the swine insinuate that there could be a connection between his patroness and a crime presumably committed by sadistic lowlifes who were after some of the money their victim must have had stashed away, he raged. And, before anything much had come to light, his sidekick, Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero, chimed in to assure the populace that Cristina has absolutely nothing to do with the ugly matter.
If by that he meant there was no reason to think she put a contract on Gutiérrez, he was almost certainly right. Even her harshest critics agree that on this occasion at least it would be farfetched to accuse her of behaving like a mafia boss. However, this does not mean politics had nothing to do with the murder. In Santa Cruz, where the Kirchner family is held in high esteem by many, Gutiérrez was an outcast, despised both by loyalists who worship Néstor and Cristina and by those who thought he was a crook who should be behind bars along with the rest of them. And the widespread assumption that he knew where huge amounts of money could be found made him a tempting target for unscrupulous individuals out to make a killing, in both senses of the expression.
For Alberto, all this is most inconvenient. He does not like being reminded of the Faustian pact he made with Cristina, by which he received the presidency in exchange for a pledge to make all that corruption business go away. Despite his sterling efforts to comply with his part of the bargain, he is finding it harder than either of them could have foreseen. By and large, Argentina’s judges and prosecutors can be just as opportunistic as her politicians and are more than willing to bend over backwards to the winds of change, but among them are some obstinate souls who insist on doing things by the book and, in any case, hereabouts the mills of justice tend to grind exceedingly slowly.
There is no lack of evidence about what Cristina and her cronies got up to when the going was good. Much of the population must be thoroughly familiar with it; night after night, television stations rebroadcast videos of a gun-toting member of her government tossing bags full of money into a convent for safekeeping, of associates gleefully machine-counting endless stacks of banknotes, or of Néstor hugging the steel door of an enormous safe in which, allegedly, he had placed some of the loot that had come his way.
Cristina clearly wants Alberto and her supporters in the Judiciary to move much faster. No doubt she fears that, as time marches on, she will lose her ability to persuade enough of her compatriots that they should pretend to believe she is the spotlessly clean victim of a mendacious “lawfare” campaign. One consequence of her impatience with the way things are going is that the pressure on journalists who dislike her has increased considerably in recent weeks.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, for a month or so Alberto enjoyed a phenomenally high approval rating, but then, as the lockdowns dragged on, an already battered economy crumbled under the strain and his own behaviour got stranger – among other things, he proclaimed himself one of the only two Latin American presidents who wanted “to change the world,” the other being Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and promised to “reform capitalism” – support for him declined swiftly. This, plus the awareness that Argentina faces a grim future, suggests that the Kirchnerites could soon have considerably less power than they have today. Without it, Cristina will find it impossible to break free from her chequered past.
It is easy to forget that in last year’s elections Mauricio Macri received over 40 percent of the votes, with Alberto and Cristina getting 48.28, a far slimmer margin that had been generally predicted. Whether this reflected satisfaction with Macri’s government in the more productive parts of the country which backed him, or distaste for what the two Peronists represented, is an open question but it did mean that the new government, unlike that of Cristina four years earlier, would have to face a broad-based opposition reluctant to rubberstamp everything it wanted to do. For Peronists with a winner-takes-all approach to the political game, this was hard to understand, but whether they like it or not, it means that should support for them slip by just three or more percentage points, as it easily could, they would be outnumbered by their opponents.
There is no way Macri or whoever eventually replaces him as leader of Argentina’s steadily growing anti-populist movement, which until the middle of the last year included many who ended up by backing Cristina’s ticket because they thought Alberto would be able to sideline her, can be made to overlook corruption. As well as being bad for a host of ethical and practical reasons, it is by far the best political card they have. Before Macri won office, hopes they would be able to manage Argentina’s broken-down economy better than the Peronists swung enough votes to enable them to scrape home. Last year, the belief that Marci’s government had been exceptionally incompetent did the same for Alberto. By the time the next elections come round, the impression that the current government has been worse even than Macri’s on the economic front, combined with public fury ignited by the release of individuals such as Amado Boudou, Julio De Vido and Lázaro Báez, could be more than enough to sink it.