European thinkers have often distinguished between the “real country,” in which people actually live and go about their business as usual, and the “legal” one, which in many places is a largely fictitious entity that only exists in the imagination of jurists. Argentina has long been familiar with that particular dichotomy. For many people, the Constitution and the rule of law are at most appealing ideals that deserve to be respected, even revered, but should not be taken too literally. Experience has taught them that personal arrangements matter far more than anything else.
Tradition dictates that if you have a legitimate grievance, you would have a better chance of winning redress if you got on good terms with someone powerful than you would if you wasted time by relying on the Judiciary.
That no doubt is why corruption, based as it is on a willingness to exchange personal favours without bothering too much about the legal details, has always been endemic in this part of the world. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Argentina is as graft-ridden as Albania, Niger and Ethiopia, though less so than Somalia, Paraguay and Pakistan. Most people understand this perfectly well and will happily pay a little extra in order to induce a policeman, customs official or bureaucrat to be a bit more cooperative. When spokespeople for Mauricio Macri’s government go on about “normality,” what they mean is that in their view Argentina would greatly benefit by becoming more like the “legal” country, in which the law is regarded as rather more than an assortment of well-meaning but for the most part inapplicable suggestions and the Judiciary is genuinely independent.
Achieving any of this will not be easy. In the initial stages at least, an attempt to purge the Judiciary of the dodgy characters who infest it will be counterproductive if people get the impression than most of their fellows are equally bad. As for corruption, it has been around for so long that if after retirement a politician lives modestly, as did the former Radical president Arturo Illia, he will be hailed as a civic saint.
A decade ago, Elisa Carrió openly accused Néstor Kirchner and his wife of stealing the equivalent of 10 billion euros from the public purse. She may have got the figure wrong – perhaps at the time it was only nine billion euros – but few people assumed she was lying outright. Though it was already evident that the country had fallen into the hands of a gang of thieves who were determined to make the most of the opportunities granted them by an electorate willing to let them treat Argentina like a bigger version of Santa Cruz, most presumably honest citizens felt it would be better to forgive them their little foibles. Instead of rallying behind Elisa and demanding their money back, they turned against her.
In a way, that was understandable. On occasion, people prefer a pleasant illusion to a disagreeable truth; the boy in Hans Cristian Andersen’s story who pointed out that the emperor was in the buff was lucky not to get torn apart by an angry mob. Most Argentines must have known all along that Mr and Mrs Kirchner, their retainers and many of their associates were crooks, but they did not like being told they had been naïve, foolish or immoral to support them in the polling-booth.
For the majority to change its collective mind about what politicians should be allowed to get away with, it had to be provided with a good excuse; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave it one by forcing Daniel Scioli to accept Carlos Zannini as his running-mate and letting Aníbal Fernández have a shot at the governorship of Buenos Aires Province. Had she shown a modicum of common sense, Scioli would in all likelihood have beaten Mauricio Macri, Buenos Aires would have acquired a relatively personable Peronist governor and members of the Judiciary would still be as reluctant to go after Kirchnerite wrongdoers no matter how many billions of euros or dollars they had salted away as most had been in the 12 years since Néstor and Cristina had moved north.
In the race to be the first federal judge to nail Cristina, Claudio Bonadio took the lead by accusing her of high treason. Seeing that the bombing of the AMIA community centre, in which 85 people died and hundreds more were injured, was an act of war, the charge is not as far-fetched as many would like to think, but even so Bonadio will find it hard to make it stick. Attempts by Cristina and her hapless foreign minister, Héctor Timerman to justify the deal with Iran on the grounds that there was no other way of even questioning the Iranians accused of being behind the bombing, let alone have them punished for what they did, are not exactly convincing, but it would be useless to deny that in the murky world of Realpolitik such manoeuvres do have their place.
After all, Argentina was far too weak militarily to do what the US or Israel might have done in similar circumstances and, in any event, not that long ago Barack Obama and his European counterparts decided it would be in their interest to overlook the obnoxious behaviour of Iran’s regime and reward it handsomely for promising to go slow on its nuclear project.
By the standards allegedly prevailing in the country almost everybody pretends is the one we now live in, Cristina surely ought to have been put behind bars several years ago not for trying to cuddle up to Hugo Chávez by getting on good terms with the ayatollahs but for systematically looting the country.
However, for that to happen, as sooner or later it well might, enough Peronist politicians would have to agree that it would be in their interest to hand her over to the courts by stripping her of the protective armour that comes with a seat in the Senate. That is something they will be reluctant to do unless it becomes evident that she has lost the backing of the strategically located fraction of the electorate that voted for her in October. If Cambiemos manages to mop up the last remaining Kirchnerite bastions in Greater Buenos Aires, Cristina’s fate will be sealed.
(*) Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).