Corruption is the art of turning power – whether that of a government minister, a judge, a petty bureaucrat or a traffic cop – into hard cash .It is something Argentine politicians have always been rather good at. Over the years, a number of them have managed to amass sizeable fortunes by demanding kickbacks for favours bestowed on businessmen willing to play by what are still widely regarded as the prevailing rules. Secure in the knowledge that as so many on both sides of the political divide have been on the take, trying to bring them all to book would be extremely difficult, they have had good reason to assume they would have nothing much to worry about.
This happy state of affairs may be about to change. People in all walks of life and most ideological persuasions are beginning to link the inability of the “political class” to run the country in a reasonably competent manner to the corrupt behaviour of some of its leading members, beginning with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor. If this way of thinking takes hold in the huge slum belt whose inhabitants regularly vote for dodgy individuals who would rather not explain how they came by the money they use to buy their mansions and expensive cars, we could soon see a big judicial offensive against bent politicians, magistrates and the like.
Argentina’s vice-president is well aware that, for her to stay out of jail, she will have to retain enough political power to frighten off those unworldly idealists who insist that nobody, no matter how eminent, should be above the law. For years she and her legal advisors have been arguing that putting her on trial, let alone sentencing her to a long term behind bars, could set off a political firestorm fierce enough to burn down the country’s political institutions. Until recently, that argument worked, but as Cristina’s power ebbs away, it is becoming less convincing.
The Supreme Court justices clearly understand the close relationship that exists between political power and corruption. Otherwise, they would not have waited over 10 years before agreeing, as they just have, that she should go on trial for allegedly profiting (as Néstor allegedly did too) from the dozens of public works contracts which were awarded to, among others, family retainers such as Lázaro Báez, the former bank clerk who in a remarkably short time became the multimillionaire boss of a construction outfit that never completed many of the roads it was supposed to build and was put inside for money-laundering back in April 2016.
Other associates of the Kirchner family firm have also found themselves in deep trouble, but despite the enormous amount of incriminating evidence that has been piled up and been made public, Cristina and her son Máximo – who inherited enough millions from his dad to make him the richest member of the Lower House – were regarded as too powerful to share their fate.
Are they? Their future depends on what the opinion polls come up with in the coming months. If, as could well happen, support for Cristina drops much below the 25 percent or so where it is currently hovering, the legal system will in all probability go into high gear, but were it to return to where it was a few months ago, many prosecutors and judges would be more disposed to be cautious. Here, as in most other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, members of the Judiciary are liable to let themselves be influenced by the political winds. For now at any rate, they are blowing against Cristina and her lad, and with the economy sliding towards what could be a most unpleasant recession made even worse by runaway inflation, they are unlikely to change direction any time soon.
In a desperate attempt to take advantage of the dismal performance of what, after all, is her own government, Cristina is trying to make out that she is the natural leader of the opposition and therefore has nothing to do with any of the nasty things that could be in store for the country’s population. She blames her stand-in, Alberto Fernández, a man she heartily despises, for everything that is going wrong. No doubt she would forgive him for mishandling the economy and making foolish remarks if, thanks to the lawyerly skills he is credited with, he somehow succeeded in getting all the charges facing her dismissed, but despite his rhetorical efforts to browbeat the Supreme Court so it leaves her alone, he is failing in this as in so many other things.
Corruption is bad not only for straightforward ethical reasons but also because it causes a great deal of material harm to people by allowing officialdom to get away not only with robbery but also with the systematic misappropriation of resources. In corrupt societies, hardly anything works properly because too many people are fully occupied trying to get their fingers on whatever loose change is flying about, or covering up for their relatives, cronies and political chiefs, and therefore do not bother about what they are supposed to be doing. For them, efficiency is undesirable because it makes it harder for them and their friends to steal the money they think should be theirs.
A good example of what can happen is being provided by the Russian Armed Forces which, to the gratification of the Ukrainians and their friends elsewhere, are encumbered by outdated and ill-maintained equipment because the men in charge were far more interested in transferring to their own bank accounts an ever bigger share of the military budget than in providing their troops with what they would need. Apparently, it never occurred to Vladimir Putin that anything like that could happen in the kleptocrats’ haven he helped create.
While it is impossible to estimate just how much widespread corruption has contributed to Argentina’s present plight, there can be little doubt that, had her rulers been on the whole as honest as their counterparts in northern Europe, say, or Singapore, she could now be at least as prosperous as are many developed countries. Corruption distorts just about everything, including the way governments face economic and social problems. When shielded by a political class which behaves like a mutual aid association protecting its own members, corrupt officials are virtually bound to put their own interests far above those of the community which, as far as they are concerned, is there merely to supply them with the votes they need to stay in business.