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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-02-2020 16:53

Political unprisoners

The notion that some people are entitled to remain above the law is shared, or regarded as unimportant, by such a large proportion of the electorate that disabusing it seems well-nigh impossible.

Dignitaries like Julio De Vido, Lázaro Báez, Amado Boudou and the rest of them have a point when they say they are “political prisoners.” Had the Kirchnerites won the 2015 elections and then gone on to “democratise” the judicial system by making it even more susceptible to political pressures than it was already, they would have remained free to carry on enriching themselves at the public expense without having to worry overmuch about all those legal niceties.

However, while those still in jail see themselves as victims of the sudden, but temporary, change in the political climate brought about by the unexpected irruption of Mauricio Macri, others, among them former president and current vice-president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, have every reason to hope that, in their particular case at least, political factors will continue to be decisive. Had it not been for them, Cristina herself would have been locked up years ago, a misfortune which would have made it rather difficult for her to stage anything like last year’s spectacular comeback that put her within a heartbeat of the country’s top job. 

The man who did most to ensure that Cristina would not be behind bars long before the electoral season opened was Miguel Ángel Pichetto, the Peronist who, with polling day fast approaching, became Macri’s running-mate. But even if he had done nothing to help her, she would probably have maintained enough political support to guarantee her freedom. Does Pichetto regret his refusal to hand her over to the many who thought she thoroughly deserved to be incarcerated? Perhaps he does, but for understandable reasons he prefers to deny any responsibility for giving Cristina enough leeway to make a deal with the allegedly moderate Peronist factions which teamed up with her and gave her presidential nominee, Alberto Fernández, the backing he needed to bear Macri in the race to the Pink House.

Fernández himself says he is dead against corruption and would dearly like to see Argentine politics become squeaky clean. Though in view of his extraordinary record, absolutely everything that comes out of his mouth – including “and” and “but”, as Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman – must be taken with several grains of salt, he may well be of the opinion that Argentina would be much better-off if the men and women ruling her were less light-fingered than so many of them are.

Most people say they agree, but despite the apparent consensus that corruption is bad and has made a major contribution to Argentina’s long decline, it seems bound to get worse in the coming years. The notion that some people are entitled to remain above the law is shared, or regarded as unimportant, by such a large proportion of the electorate that disabusing it seems well-nigh impossible.

Does this matter? It certainly should. By and large, countries in which greasing the palms of politicians and bureaucrats is considered normal tend to be poorer than those in which such behaviour is frowned upon, if only because of the way public funds get allocated. There may be exceptions: when Japan seemed about to take over the world, many politicians became enviably rich without much attention being paid to how they steered money into their own pockets. By the puritanical standards prevailing elsewhere, the Japanese political system was flagrantly corrupt, but as it appeared to work extremely well its peculiarities were attributed to cultural differences outsiders could not be expected to understand.

Though it is widely accepted that corruption is both immoral and incompatible with a desirable degree of administrative efficiency, let alone social justice, it can be argued that fighting it vigorously would do far more harm than good. This would certainly be the case if Cristina, after an appearance in court, suddenly found herself handcuffed, given a bullet-proof jacket and got led away by cops following a judge’s order: her supporters, seething with rectitude, would lay siege to whatever prison she got sent to.

Indeed, some bellicose Kirchnerites think the president could be persuaded to liberate all “political prisoners” if angry mobs started trying to batter their way into the places where they are being held. They want a repeat of what happened almost half a century ago when president Héctor Cámpora, who was waiting to be dislodged so Juan Domingo Perón could take over, ordered the release of all “political prisoners,” many of whom were murderous terrorists. Perón, who once in office would mount a full-scale onslaught against them, was anything but pleased.

As far as devout Kirchnerites are concerned, Cristina, her family members and those she favours simply cannot be accused of breaking the law. They dismiss the cartloads of evidence piled up by prosecutors and judges out to nail them as “fake news” concocted by cunning enemies of the people. Even if they do not really think it is all false, the idea that it must be has become an article of faith which no genuine Kirchnerite would dream of questioning. This may seem far-fetched, but, like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, political and religious fanatics are fully capable of believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. They leave themselves no choice; if doubts began creeping in, the universe they live in would collapse, leaving them stranded in a world without meaning.

If one excludes the millions who voted for the winning ticket without taking corruption into account because they assume that all politicians are on the make, it may be less than 10 percent of the adult population. Confronting them is the 40 percent or so who, despite everything, cling to those “bourgeois” values they have been brought up to respect. President Fernández knows it would be most unwise of him to earn their contempt by defending corrupt practices and that for straightforward economic reasons he must take into account the effect such a stance would have on his “friends” abroad. But he is also well aware that, for some time to come, he cannot afford to treat Cristina and her adherents as enemies. Though he is doing his best to wriggle out of the trap circumstances have set for him, he, along with the rest of the country, remains stuck in it.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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