From the moment Cristina Fernández de Kirchner assumed her current post, nobody has considered her a vice-president as the real power behind the ruling coalition but as from last Monday she can finally be viewed as a vice-president in the sense of being a president of vice at least – if corruption is a vice, then she is the first offender, according to the long list of accusations read out over eight days by federal prosecutor Diego Luciani and culminating in his request for a 12-year prison sentence and a perpetual ban from public office.
Coincidentally in those same days she has also become second fiddle in real as well as formal terms by taking a back seat to the new Economy Minister Sergio Massa – a win-win situation for her because if he succeeds, that gives Frente de Todos a fighting chance of saving its electoral bacon next year and if he fails, that spells the self-elimination of a dangerous rival. That back seat has nevertheless not spared her from springing to the forefront of this week’s news with the “j’accuse” of Luciani.
The overwhelming headline and media dominance of the Santa Cruz highway corruption trial notwithstanding, the urgencies of the economic crisis cannot be ignored – so much so that it becomes a very valid question to ask which is the distraction from which because there are equally good reasons for answering either way. Should we allow Monday’s weighty charges and Tuesday’s verbal fireworks to take our eye off the ball of spiralling inflation and dwindling reserves? Or is any investment and future planning on hold until impunity from corruption can be effectively banished?
This dilemma is entirely the fault of Fernández de Kirchner – her judicial problems should never have been made the centre of national attention. This priority, maintained throughout the coronavirus pandemic with autistic obstinacy, is the original sin of the Frente de Todos administration, which was awarded its electoral mandate to redress the failure of the Mauricio Macri presidency to exit its balance of payments problems in the drought year of 2018 (does that sound familiar this year?). There is no real answer to that dilemma except to say that neither Cristina nor Massa should be allowed to use the other to let them off the hook.
In any event this trial does not lend itself very readily to this column, whose aim is to link past and present via 34 years of newsroom experience on the Buenos Aires Herald, because there is no real precedent for an incumbent of a presidential ticket going on trial. Charges seem to be pressed against ex-rulers more often than not and it is not difficult to recall vice-presidents being at the other end of an accusation (for example, Carlos ‘Chacho’ Alvarez with the Senate bribery scandal in 2000) but nothing like the current situation springs to mind. The difference here is that while Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is effectively being charged with past misdoings during her presidency like Carlos Menem before her or Macri now, she still holds executive office. Only three men in Argentine history (Julio Argentino Roca, Hipólito Yrigoyen and Juan Domingo Perón) have had two bites of the presidential cherry and it is even more unique for an ex-president to make a comeback as vice-president – a humility explained by electoral strategy. No vice-president has ever returned to that post although eight have subsequently become president (none since Isabel Perón in 1974).
Lázaro Báez (also in line for a 12-year sentence if found guilty) is a different proposition with nothing new about crony capitalism in Argentina – his uniqueness would lie in that rather than being a capitalist before becoming a crony like others of the breed, the obscure bank clerk followed the reverse order. While businessmen in most other countries are very good at looking after themselves, in Argentina it becomes very hard to show indifference to the government in the best of cases. The phrase “patria contratista” (contractual fatherland) was already in circulation when I began work at the Herald in 1983. Curiously enough, this state-driven phenomenon is thought to have arisen out of the fervently anti-Communist 1976-1983 military dictatorship whereas the “industrial fatherland” of the previous four decades giving more of a role to the private sector was kept going by the import substitution policies of a Peronism addicted to state intervention.
Placing on trial such blatant crony capitalism as steering 51 Santa Cruz highway contract into the hands of Báez while always paying before rather than after an erratic completion (the competition in the tenders consisted of other dummy companies owned by Báez and often the Ezkenazis, also crony capitalists of YPF infamy who deliberately overpriced their bids) is essential for the defence of the institutions but such defence also demands respect for the due judicial process – something missing in many of this week’s reactions prematurely convicting her.
In conclusion, a linguistic point. In her last court appearance in this case just five weeks after her 2019 election victory, Cristina said: “A mí me absolvió la historia.” Normally “absolver” is a false friend – it is priests who absolve while judges acquit – but could she have meant “absolve” in this
In this news
- Cristina Fernández De Kirchner
- Alberto Fernández
- Mauricio Macri
- Diego Luciani
- Sergio Mola
- Nicky Caputo