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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-05-2019 10:16

The magistrate’s poker face

What, exactly, was the Supreme Court going for? Like a good poker player, it’s impossible to read its cards. Was it a misstep, as most media outlets suggest? Or was it a message? Did they decide to step back in the face of pressure?

The best poker players have several things in common. It is almost impossible to predict what cards they have, but they almost always seem to have read their opponents. Placing outsized bets that generally appear impossible, they lure others in, and with the odds clearly against them, they reveal a winning hand. Luck, of course, plays a big role. But anyone who has lost a few hands against one of these aces recognises talent when its sitting across the table. There’s another alternative though: that the player’s cheating, which involves as much or more skill.

The stakes in this year’s presidential elections in Argentina are higher than ever. President Mauricio Macri faces off with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in a battle for the nation’s soul. Neoliberalism vs. populism. “Change” vs. Peronism. Regardless of which dichotomy is used to describe two steadfast camps at opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum, it’s also the leaders of each movement that are personally putting everything on the line, as the loser will most surely face one of the toughest judicial onslaughts the nation, much accustomed, has ever seen.

That is why the Supreme Court’s decision to enter the political arena by requesting the docket in one of several high-profile corruption cases against Cristina becomes all the more relevant. Scheduled to begin on May 21, the case known as “Vialidad” was the first placing CFK in the dock, alongside the frontline of the former Planning Ministry then headed by Julio De Vido (who is currently behind bars), and Patagonia businessman Lázaro Báez (also imprisoned). The charges being brought by federal prosecutor Diego Luciani before the Second Criminal Federal Oral Tribunal (TOF2) claim Fernández de Kirchner led an illicit association that d i re c ted publ ic works projects to Báez through rigged bids, allowing him to defraud the state through overpricing (to the tune of 15 to 20 percent) and failing to deliver projects on time or at all. In related cases, known as Hotesur and Los Sauces (recently fused together), the prosecution will argue that those illicit funds were channelled back to CFK and her family through the hiring of spurious lodging and rental services in the Kirchner family’s hotels and properties by Báez and Cristobal López.

The Supreme Court caused a stir on Tuesday when it asked the court for the docket days before the trial was set to begin. The argument that several procedural objections hadn’t been properly observed wasn’t enough to push all of the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) ruling coalition to come out en force to question the political intention of a court where Justice Carlos Rosenkratz, acting president who is close to Macri, has been left in an absolute minority. The four remaining justices were accused of acting at judge Ricardo Lorenzetti’s orders under the so-called “Peronist majority”. Lorenzetti, who “ruled” the Supreme Court from 2007 to 2019, is an expert in political rhythm. During his years, the judiciary in general, and federal courthouse Comodoro Py more specifically, kept a tight ship, working in the Kirchners’ favour up until the social mood began to change. It also held a close relationship with the intelligence agencies, which under the old SIDE structure responded to Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, who was ejected from the spy agency shortly before the death of AMIA Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Things looked very different back then, with pseudo-spies like Marcelo D’Alessio and federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli in the hot seat. Lorenzetti was pushed out of the presidency at the Executive’s behest, and he hasn’t forgotten.

Having requested the docket meant by definition that the trial couldn’t start. From a procedural context, the trial requires the physical copies, which needed to be sent to the Supreme Tribunal. Furthermore, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the court had decided to “acknowledge” any of the nine complaints lodged by the plaintiffs, which would effectively revoke the trial. For example, while Báez had received 51 public works projects in Santa Cruz province from 2003 to 2015 worth some eight billion pesos (nearly 80 percent of the total budget), the court ordered an audit of only five of those. Results are expected June or August. As the cacerolazos raged across Buenos Aires’ wealthiest neighbourhoods, and the media journalistically crucified the Supreme Court, things began to change.

Sources close to the magistrates began to admit the move had been “hastily” put together. Rumours flew, chatter grew, and a press release was posted then deleted from the Court’s website. Finally, a document indicated the Court’s request would not delay the trial, instead focusing on procedural issues and preserving constitutional guarantees. The argument was about previous oral trials that were overruled by the court due to procedural issues in lower courts. The show must go on.

With Cristina set to make her way to court on Tuesday, the tarnished reputation of Argentina’s judiciary is once again under suspicion. What, exactly, was the Supreme Court going for? Like a good poker player, it’s impossible to read its cards. Was it a misstep, as most media outlets suggest? Or was it a message? Did they decide to step back in the face of pressure?

Argentina’s judiciary is the country’s second least trusted institution, with 11 percent of the population, according to political consultant Eduardo Reina. (Unions, with an 8 percent approval rating, are at the bottom of the table). In a nation riddled by corruption, complicit courts have always guaranteed justice wouldn’t be served. Reports of immense wealth in the judiciary, along with tax exemptions and express rulings in favour of those in power have helped cement that reputation. Add the mess that is the involvement of illicit espionage rings, made all too public recently, to the mix.

Ahead of these elections, the Court could be reminding everyone who really holds the power. As Silvio Santamarina of Noticias suggested, they will hold the power over a trial that has the leading presidential candidate in the dock, and which could come to a conclusion when she is in charge of the Executive.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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