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14/06/2016 | The Corrupt Zigzag, an Argentine Dance

Uki Goni

Argentina is changing political direction again, in a century-old zigzag from left to right and back. Traumatic though this obsessive ritual is, what is most amazing is that the language almost never changes: The powers that be are corrupt. Throw them out.


This holds true across the political spectrum. Charged with corruption, an incumbent is ousted by voters or a coup. An appearance in court often follows, but the investigation goes nowhere at the hands of politically wary investigators or judges. Eventually, the reformers are themselves tarred with corruption charges, and the cycle repeats itself.
The current turnabout features the populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president from 2007 to last year, and her husband, Néstor, who preceded her from 2003 to 2007 and died in 2010. Her center-right successor, Mauricio Macri, ran on promises of ending their alleged corruption and fixing Argentina’s economy. The outcome: Ms. Kirchner has been indicted on charges of organizing a currency trade at an artificially low price that benefited rich investors and cost Argentina’s Central Bank billions of dollars. Meanwhile, television news is rife with images of earth movers digging up a Patagonian farm where a vast Kirchner fortune is rumored to be buried. Other Kirchner-era officials are accused of bribe taking, embezzling and misappropriating public funds.
Does this mean Mrs. Kirchner is forever humbled? Hardly. A large slice of the population still sees her as a champion of the underprivileged — and a strong potential contender for president in 2019.
Extraordinary as this may appear to outsiders, none of it is new to Argentines.
Nasty political divides date from Argentina’s independence from Spain early in the 19th century, a time of bloody disputes between advocates of local authority or strong central rule. Revolts and civil wars followed each other, as landlords battled rival landlords, using gauchos — mounted cowhands — as soldiers.
In the 20th century, enduring rifts opened between caudillos — commanding figures who appealed to the masses — and more elitist leaders, with all sides typically saying their foes were corrupt. In 1930, after the progressive president Hipólito Yrigoyen was overthrown in a military coup, he was imprisoned on charges involving fraudulent government purchases. But none of the accusations were proved.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the populist general Juan Perón and his second wife, Eva, accused “oligarchs” of exploiting the working class. Generals aligned with the upper class that the Peróns vilified ousted Mr. Perón from the presidency in 1955 and ordered an inquiry into allegations against him that included embezzlement of Argentine agricultural export earnings and sexual exploits with teenage girls. But even a lengthy investigation (and a posthumous public exhibition of Eva’s jewelry collection) did not yield conclusive findings.
But the dream of a united Argentina didn’t last. In 1989, Argentines elected as president Carlos Menem, a right-wing Peronist who drove around in a red Ferrari Testarossa he had received as a gift from Italian businessmen. He privatized the state-run telephone, gas, electricity and oil companies, and soon was embroiled in allegations of corruption. He didn’t help his case when journalists asked about the Ferrari and he childishly replied: “It’s mine, mine, mine!”
Still, his reputation for corruption did not turn off voters. He even managed to change the Constitution to allow his re-election in 1995. A remark often heard about him explains a lot: “Roba pero hace” — “He steals but he gets things done.”
Unfortunately, what he got done — radical free-market reforms — also created deep unemployment that outlasted his term in office. A foreign debt default and a catastrophic economic crash in 2001 prompted his successor, Fernando de la Rúa, to call a state of emergency, resign and retire — after which he faced an unsuccessful prosecution on charges that he had bribed senators to approve a labor reform law.
Which brings us back to the populist Ms. Kirchner, and Mr. Macri’s efforts to have Argentina’s notoriously pliable judges investigate her now.
Is Argentina finally tackling its endemic corruption? It’s hard to say. Sebastián Casanello, the judge who ordered the Patagonia excavations, is also investigating Mr. Macri, since his name appears on the board of directors of an offshore company mentioned in the Panama Papers scandal.
Nevertheless, when corruption and lurid accusations become so pervasive, a point is reached where they barely raise eyebrows. In Argentina, that juncture was passed long ago. Today, the glacially slow federal courts are honeycombed with judges often as corrupt as the politicians they investigate, says a leading anti-corruption crusader, Luis Moreno Ocampo. “It’s a system of judges,” he says, “who cover up corruption instead of investigating it.”
And the corruption thus enabled creates deep cynicism throughout the society.
Consider René Favaloro, an Argentine heart surgeon in the 1960s, who pioneered a coronary bypass technique in Cleveland, then returned to Argentina to set up a cardiovascular foundation. His integrity and generosity (he operated on poorer patients free) became legendary.
But those traits proved his undoing. When he refused to pay kickbacks demanded by health services officials, the state institute for pensioners refused to pay what it owed him for operations, leaving him at the brink of bankruptcy.
“I have been defeated by this corrupt society that controls everything,” he wrote in a famous note saying he’d rather die than take kickbacks. Then he shot himself through the heart.
That was 16 years ago. Instead of succumbing again to the cyclical use of its prevalent corruption for political mudslinging, Argentina needs to tackle corruption at its core — to wage full-out war on an ancient malady eating away at a still-fragile democracy.
That will require, before anything else, a truly independent judiciary that can quickly drop unfounded accusations and, when there is guilt, deliver more than token convictions that are intended mainly to discredit political opponents.
Most important, the war must be waged against corruption wherever it occurs, not just among political enemies.
Uki Goñi is the author of “The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina” and a contributing opinion writer.

NY Times (Estados Unidos)


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