“Send a bottle of champagne to Dr. Carrió,” were Julio De Vido’s last words to the press as a free man on Wednesday as he walked into the Comodoro Py courthouse, escorted by his lawyers. Hours later, he would find himself behind bars at the Ezeiza Federal Prison, alongside illustrious Kirchneristas including Lázaro Báez, José López, and César Milani.
While his imprisonment is certainly well deserved, De Vido — who was both Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s planning minister, in charge of public works and one of the only ones to last all 12 years of the K administrations — needs to be quickly accused of graft and taken to trial, where any impartial judge would most probably find him guilty. De Vido’s arrest could be the beginning of an Argentine version of Lava Jato — the Brazilian graft investigation led by Judge Sergio Moro which is unravelling the country’s public-private structure of power and corruption — or an ominous indication that President Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos coalition (Let’s Change) is ready to use the judicial power to further its political needs. Let me explain.
Back in 2003, victorious and virtually unknown, Néstor Kirchner became president of Argentina and started to seduce the population with his charisma. This publishing house’s magazine Noticias decided to pose a critical eye on the Patagonian head of state and his acolytes. “The untouchables,” was our first cover featuring De Vido, who had been with Néstor since he became mayor of Rio Gallegos in 1987, capital of Santa Cruz Province. “The cashier,” was how we dubbed him that October, when he graced Noticias’ cover for a second time, a nickname that sticks to this day. As the Noticias team began to scratch beneath the surface, De Vido and Kirchner’s shady dealings at the municipal, then provincial (Kirchner held the governorship of Santa Cruz before becoming president), and finally at national level became increasingly clearer. By 2007, while almost every major news outlet, including Clarín and La Nación, covered the Kirchner administration favourably, we directly denounced him as the leader of a criminal organisation that was siphoning out hundreds of millions of dollars off of public works and energy projects.
With the added manpower of the Perfil newspaper, we followed De Vido closely, breaking the story of the Skanska case, the first major corruption investigation tied to the minister. We covered his dealings with Venezuela, as Hugo Chávez and the Kirchners mounted a parallel embassy in Caracas, supervised by De Vido’s men, where Argentina, locked out of international debt markets, received financing and hard currency in exchange for energy investments in Venezuela’s Orinoco field. It would be hard to forget Antonini Wilson, the Venezuelan national who was stopped in customs trying to bring US$800.000 into the country in his luggage in 2007. According to the FBI, with whom Wilson later collaborated, those petrodollars were provided by Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and were destined to finance Cristina’s presidential campaign that year.
Today, De Vido’s closest advisors are in jail. Ricardo Jaime, his transport secretary, was taken into custody last year through a probe into the fraudulent acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese trains in 2005, the vast majority of which didn’t work. José López, his public works secretary, was caught throwing a duffel bag containing over US$9 million over the walls of a monastery. Finally, Roberto Baratta, De Vido’s right-hand man, turned himself in last week over charges involving the US$6.9- billion purchase of natural liquified gas.
Despite the weight of the evidence, De Vido deserves a fair trial. Emboldened by a landslide victory in last week’s legislative elections, Macri’s coalition led a vote in the lower house to strip De Vido of the immunity granted to national deputies, in the absence of a conviction. Judges who were complacent during the heydays of Kirchnerismo have smelled the blood in the water, and are now aggressively targeting those heavily suspected of having orchestrated the K cash machine. While those arrests earn judges and the government political points, they must respect due process in order to not lose legitimacy.
Hopefully, De Vido’s detention will lead to the truth coming out, which would then incriminate all those responsible, from politicians to businessmen. Many are yearning to see CFK suffer the same fate. Yet, for this to become our very own Lava Jato we need more than the politically palatable prosecution of De Vido, and even Cristina. Deep judicial reform that limits the impunity of judges and prosecutors, while giving them the tools to pursue public-private crime, must eliminate the incentives that generate collusion with whoever is in power. Unless Macri moves in that direction, this is just bread and circus. And champagne.