It’s been a long time in coming, but unless the country’s famously sluggish judicial system – which in this field rivals Italy’s – finds an excuse to put things on hold, within a couple of days the court trying Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for some of the many corruption charges she faces should finally come up with a verdict. Most people, beginning with the vice-president herself, are convinced that the judges will sentence her to a spell in jail and debar her for life from holding public office, though few think she will actually be put inside any time soon or that mere legal considerations will prevent her from continuing to play a major role in politics. They assume that the “judicial firing squad” she says she is waiting for her will bombard her with rubber bullets.
Like much of the rest of the country, Cristina takes it for granted that the law is a weapon the powerful are entitled to use to defend their own interests and punish their foes. This makes what is happening even more painful for her than would otherwise be the case. She does not attribute her legal woes to what she did when most of her fellow politicians turned a blind eye to whatever it was she was up to but to the waning of her ability to control events. She knows perfectly well that, until fairly recently, she would have been able to laugh off the highly plausible charges made against her because the likelihood of them leading to a formal conviction would have remained extremely small.
While there can be little doubt that Cristina and members of her entourage did commit a large number of crimes, with some who started as virtual down-and-outs becoming multimillionaires almost overnight, they always had plenty of accomplices. In addition to the unprepossessing individuals who obediently applauded her every utterance, they included jurists, politicians, high-ranking bureaucrats, journalists, television personalities and others who pretended to believe that she and her main cronies were as honest as the day is long plus, needless to say, the millions who voted for them even though they knew perfectly well that they spent much of their time enriching themselves.
Raised as she was in this kind of environment, it is not at all surprising that Cristina saw nothing wrong in taking financial advantage of the political power she kept accumulating. It is possible that she would have refrained from doing so if she had reached the top by her own unaided efforts, but had she not been the wife of Néstor Kirchner her chances of winning the presidency would have been slight.
Unfortunately for her, and for the rest of the country, Néstor was an amoral character who was very fond of money. To go straight on becoming president, Cristina would have had to renounce the by then substantial family fortune and break away from the man who had made it possible for her to play a leading political role and who, after his early death, was remembered with affection by a large chunk of the electorate. As that was something she could not do, she felt obliged to continue on the road she had already taken.
Just how much of Cristina’s thinking has been determined by her need to outrun the anti-corruption campaigners snapping at her heels is hard to say, but if her misdemeanours had been relatively minor – as they presumably are with most members of the country’s political fraternity – she would surely have done many things differently. Given her talents, without the baggage which, thanks to her husband, she arrived with, she might have made a good moderate president who, among other things, would have desisted from fattening still further an already obese public sector and, by so doing, set the country on the path to where it is today.
On one occasion, Néstor himself remarked that buttering up the left gives one a degree of protection because it is sure to please an influential cultural elite, which is why he agreed to fund pressure groups run by people who said they were fighting for human rights (by which they meant those that were violated several decades ago) and made out that he and his wife had always been brave social justice warriors. As well as doing her best to keep local “progressives” on side, Cristina also found herself obliged to devote much time to an effort to “reform” the judiciary so those involved in it would agree to overlook her behaviour.
For many years much of the population agreed, tacitly or, in some cases, quite noisily, that Cristina’s willingness to treat the public sector as her own private piggy bank was part of the natural order of things. As a result, corruption became even more widespread than it had been before. This was bound to happen. Without moral authority, those at the very top could not order their underlings to desist from pocketing whatever came their way, and these could only look the other way when their own subordinates did much the same. The upshot is that Argentine society is so riddled with corruption that reducing it to what may be regarded as a normal level – more of it than in Scandinavia, less than in Italy or Russia – will be extraordinarily difficult, but unless this is done economic recovery will never be more than a pipe dream.
When Cristina was in office, governments in the United States and other rich countries decided that corruption in poorer parts of the world was not merely an exotic way of doing business that deserved to be respected but a big problem which affected “governance,” so they should do their best to combat it. Naturally enough, the then-president took personally the clean-up campaign that quickly gathered steam and veered further leftwards in search of ideological support, finding what she wanted in places like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua where it is officially assumed that Yankee capitalism is the root of all evil.
Though lately there have been signs that Cristina feels that flirting with such regimes was a strategic mistake and that, irksome though the sermons coming from Washington and the legal harassment accompanying them most certainly are, it would be better for Argentina to put up with it than let it influence internal policies, but the country’s economic plight is now so serious that changing course would not make much of a difference.