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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 01-08-2020 10:10

Making a monkey of the law

In Argentina, where many think all politicians are crooks, millions are more than happy to vote for individuals they know have always been on the take and who, if elected, will continue to put their personal business interests before anything to do with the welfare of their compatriots.

The main reason hardly any Argentines regard judges as superior beings who would never dream of letting their ideological preferences or pecuniary interests influence their rulings is the willingness of far too many of them to give their political friends the benefit of every conceivable doubt. It is taken for granted that, with rare exceptions, judges and prosecutors will bow to the political winds, something many here do with metronomic regularity.

When most people assumed that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would not be coming back, investigations into her behaviour in office gathered speed, only to slow down again sharply when the economy seized up and the mood changed. Soon after that happened, men and women connected to her arch-foe Mauricio Macri began to take their turn in the dock.

There is also the spectacle provided by judges who in the course of their careers managed to acquire enviable personal fortunes. As few believe they got rich by legitimate means, their achievements in this respect have not improved the reputation of the country’s Judiciary. One of the most notorious is Rodolfo Canicoba Corral who last week, just before going into retirement and starting to draw his pension, found time to begin proceedings against two of Macri’s former cabinet ministers, Nicolas Dujovne and Guillermo Dietrich, and drop the charges against several mainstays of the Kirchnerite administration, including former economy minister Axel Kiciloff, who is now the governor of Buenos Aires Province. None of this tells us much about the people involved: in Argentina, virtually everyone who has held a government position is liable to spend the following years facing magistrates who are convinced that he or she must have violated some legal nicety.

President Alberto Fernández – who, as he likes to remind us, doubles as a law professor – thinks it is terrible that people believe judges are political hacks who will always obey their bosses and says this is why he is trying to ram through a judicial reform which, his many critics assume, is designed to make life less stressful for the lady who gave him his job and would move back into the Pink House were he to vacate the premises. Whether or not his bill gets the congressional approval it needs is an open question, but no matter what happens, the attempt to overhaul the judicial system by, among other things, first expanding and then dismembering the Supreme Court, is certain to make it look even less trustworthy.

For Cristina, judicial reform is an absolute priority. Given the large number of highly plausible accusations that have been levelled against her, some of which are still making their way through the courts, her desire to have them go away or, at least, be rendered harmless, is understandable. Less easy to understand is the support her viewpoint enjoys among intelligent individuals who are never going to be charged personally with having committed anything approaching a crime. 

While some will have benefitted from her patronage or from that of organisations such as La Cámpora which she sponsors, others have nothing much at stake. Even so, they profess to find it outrageous that a handful of prosecutors and judges, egged on by journalists, not only accuse Cristina of breaking the law but also insist that, if found guilty, both she and some of her associates should spend many years behind bars. As far as the Kirchnerite militants are concerned, such blatant lèse-majesté can only reflect the vile prejudices of reactionaries who despise those who voted for their leader and the man who, after treating her with contempt for several years, suddenly became her most eloquent ally. 

Do they really believe this? So much evidence of wrongdoing has been piled up by Cristina’s accusers that defenders of what she, her husband and their cronies got up to when the going was good must either persuade themselves that it is all a pack of lies invented by their enemies or that, while industrial-scale looting may be illegal by bourgeois standards, it can be justified by revolutionary ones. Indeed, it could be argued that Mr and Mrs Kirchner raked in huge amounts of money because they wanted to change Argentina into the kind of country they and their followers wanted her to become. Though some Kirchnerites insinuate that this was why the couple did what they did, none have gone so far as to spell it out. Instead, they have insisted that as Cristina and the rest are innocent of all the many charges against them, they should be dropped immediately.

In some parts of the world, politicians cannot get away with even minor misdemeanours like failing to pay a fine for parking a car in the wrong place or lying about their whereabouts while indulging in a clandestine love affair. In Argentina, where many think all politicians are crooks, millions are more than happy to vote for individuals they know have always been on the take and who, if elected, will continue to put their personal business interests before anything to do with the welfare of their compatriots.

This raises an intriguing question: if nobody had ever suggested that, while in power, Cristina had taken advantage of the opportunities that arose to squirrel away far more money than most people make in a lifetime, would she be even more powerful than she already is? Perhaps she would, with the 30 percent or so who allegedly back her being supplemented by those who do not because they find corruption distasteful. Or it could be that many of the poorer inhabitants of the country, who provide her with her political base, are strongly attracted by the idea that in some way she struck a blow against the establishment by robbing it blind. Either way, it would seem that for very many people corruption is not much of an issue.

Do most Argentines have a low opinion of the local Judiciary because they are aware that some of its members are as dishonest as they come? Or is it that they think justice is a weapon the powerful use against the weak, so even if every single judge were a paragon of virtue, the end result would be much the same? Either way, whether it goes into effect or, as seems more likely, has no practical consequences at all, the judicial reform Alberto unveiled last week seems certain to make an already bad situation that much worse.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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


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