Here, a former president who has been plausibly accused of stealing billions of dollars not only remains at large, but still has a chance of returning in triumph to the Pink House and stealing a few billion more.
Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
If the results of its collective endeavours are anything to go
by, Argentina’s political establishment must be among the
planet’s worst because it managed to impoverish a country
which had just about everything going for it. Seen from
another angle, however, Argentine politicians are far better
at what they do than most others; dubious as they achievements
may be, many still enjoy the support of sizable segments of the
population and, as the Peronist senators reminded us last week,
they have come to take it for granted that, like the aristos in prerevolutionary
France, they should not be expected to abide by the
same rules as commoners.
In the UK not that long ago, a government minister who tried to
wriggle his way out of a traffic offence committed years earlier by
saying that his then wife had been at the wheel got
sent to jail; here, a former president who has been
plausibly accused of stealing billions of dollars not
only remains at large, but still has a chance, albeit
a remote one, of returning in triumph to the Pink
House and stealing a few billion more. If the opinion
polls are to be believed, that is what about a third
of the electorate wants.
The Argentina political system - the real one, not
the fictitious one dreamt up by constitutionalists - is
a work of art. It is based on a corporatist arrangement
by which parliamentarians, judges, tradeunion
bosses and members of the business elite,
plus their respective hangers-on, work together to
share out the available loot so they can enjoy a far
higher standard of living than the country’s economic
performance would warrant. On occasion,
they may fight among themselves, but if things
seem to be getting really nasty, they close ranks.
That is why so many well-placed individuals have reacted to the
recent torrent of revelations by professing themselves shocked,
shocked to learn that top businessmen had made a habit of winning
public works contracts by bribing government officials.
To justify the pay increases they regularly vote themselves, politicians
claim they represent democracy and that unless they are
generously rewarded, only those who are already rich could afford
to run for office; judges such as that Firbankian character Norberto
Oyarbide before he confessed that spooks had strong-armed him
to let Mr and Mrs Kirchner off the hook, warn that were it not for
them bent politicians would never be brought to heel; trade-union
heavies say they and only they stand up for the downtrodden workers;
businessmen point out that they produce all the goods consumers
crave. Meanwhile, the rest of society sinks ever deeper
Dismantling the mutual aid system the interlocking elites have
constructed will not be easy. A century of failure has made Argentina
is a very conservative country in which people quite naturally
cling to whatever they have for fear it will be taken away from them.
They may clamour for change, but that does not mean they are
prepared to put up with it if they suspect they will be on the receiving-
end. That no doubt is why governments led by men and women
who, before taking over, swore they would stop at nothing in their
efforts to put an end to corruption, after a few days in office decided
it would be better to leave things as they were.
Mauricio Macri seems determined to break with this tradition.
Whether because he wants to be remembered as the man who
rebooted Argentina or for some other reason, he says he will press
on with what he calls “modernisation”. Can he do it without sending
an already juddering economy into a tail-spin? That is a
question troubling many people who cannot be accused of favouring
As the now famous notebooks in which a chauffeur kept tags
on the suitcases full of dirty money he routinely delivered to Nestor
Kirchner, his spouse Cristina and other top government officials
remind us, much of the business elite collaborated with the men
and women who for over ten years devoted themselves to hoovering
up a fair proportion of the country’s resources. Under pressure or
because they assumed all governments were venal
and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise,
they all broke what idealistic theorists insist was
the law of the land.
To get at the crooked politicians he thinks are
holding Argentina back, Macri has to treat those
businessmen with equal severity even though
they include some of his own relatives and friends.
For obvious reasons, picking a fight with a big part
of the business community just when the country
is facing a prolonged economic drought strikes
many as unwise, but he now has little choice in
Macri hopes foreigners out there in New York,
London and Frankfurt will be suitably impressed
by his determination to rid Argentina of wrongdoers.
Perhaps they will be, but that does not mean
they will back him up with the cash he so desperately
needs. Others, in Moscow and Peking,
where the ethical concerns that worry the watchdogs who keep an
eye on Wall Street shenanigans are deemed secondary, may see an
opportunity to move in, but help from that quarter would be sure
to create a large number of problems.
Unfortunately for Macri, it would appear that few people really
believe the country’s many economic woes have much to do with
corruption. Most assume it is merely a matter of seeing some money
skimmed off by unscrupulous operators and overlook the harm
that is done when individuals in cahoots with them make all the
important economic decisions. It is reported that under Macri public
infrastructure works cost about forty percent less than they did
when Cristina was running the show. However, though such savings
are significant, they are not immediately perceptible and so
make little difference to the public mood.
If Argentina were enjoying an economic boom, most people
would be more than happy to see dozens of greedy politicians,
judges who rose quickly from rags to riches and their businessmen
cronies get clapped behind bars. Many would attribute
the good times to the government’s willingness to do whatever it
takes to fight graft. But as the current economic outlook is bleak
and seems likely to get even bleaker in the coming months, the
many who on the whole prefer corrupt politicians to their rivals
can tell themselves that Argentina is being ruined by moralistic
men and women who subordinate public welfare to their own