In rich countries, successful businessmen may be criticised by leftist ideologues and conservative curmudgeons who despise trade, but most people look up to them. In Argentina, however, it is widely assumed that – with few exceptions – they are money-grubbing crooks who owe their good fortune to their willingness to swindle their compatriots out of the little they have. That means that, unless they are led by free-wheeling Peronists such as Carlos Menem, business-friendly governments must hew to far higher ethical standards than blatantly populist ones.
Over the years, dozens of Peronists have been accused of stashing money away in places like Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, the Seychelles or Andorra without such foibles causing them much harm, but that is something no member of Team Macri can afford to do. That is why the nowformer presidential undersecretary Valentin Díaz Gilligan got the chop and Mauricio Macri has had to go, yet again, into full damage-limitation mode in the hope that the affair will soon blow over.
As is customary in societies in which respect for the letter of the law tends to be little more than an attractive theory, Argentines who want to keep a tight hold on what they have acquired – for fear a dodgy government will get its sticky hands on it – are liable to salt as much as they can abroad. It is hard to know just how much there is hiding out there, but apparently it amounts to well over a quarter of a trillion (a US trillion) US dollars, or about half the annual gross national product of Argentina.
Many job-holders in Macri’s government are products of the business community, so it can be taken for granted that in the past at least some have done their best to outwit the taxman and would rather not be obliged to tell us exactly how they went about it. Often enough, what they did will have been perfectly legal – thousands of lawyers, accountants and consultants make a prosperous living by making the most of the loopholes that riddle the system – but the general public, egged on by foes of capitalism who are eager to pounce on any of its representatives, is prone to condemn such behaviour, whether legitimate or not, so if they are found out, the government will have to pay a stiff political price.
Macri and the men and women surrounding him seem determined to live up to the high standards they have set themselves. That is not proving to be easy. They cannot draw a line between what happened before they reached power and what they have done since taking office. The country may have given Peronists and others much like them an informal amnesty, but it is in no mood to grant one to people whose collective reputation is based on their leader’s promise to see they do everything by the book.
Whether they like it or not, members of Macri’s government will have to get used to being expected to behave like politicians in countries like New Zealand or Denmark, where cases involving corruption are rare, rather than like most of their compatriots who, according to Transparency International, are even more willing to take bribes than their equivalents in Burkina Faso or Jamaica.
When a puzzled Peronist senator once asked Néstor Kirchner why he had suddenly started cuddling up to allegedly progressive groups he had long despised, the newly elected president explained that what he wanted was a degree of protection that only the left could give him. It was a shrewd move. In Argentina and many other countries, leftists of one kind or another may find it hard to win that many votes, but though their influence is waning they still continue to wield considerable power in the media and related cultural spheres. Even in such neoliberal hellholes as the US and the UK, they manage the public conversation.
Had the Patagonian continued to pose as the tough-minded right-of-centre political operator who for years had lorded it over his native province, where he was notorious for refusing to have anything to do with trouble-makers who go on about human rights and the like, his financial shenanigans would have soon pitted him against those who automatically give aid and comfort to politicians who swear they are leftists waging a war against capitalism, imperialism and other manifestations of evil. Despite everything that has happened in Venezuela, many still revere the late Hugo Chávez and are willing to put in a good word for his hapless “son,” Nicolás Maduro, who is busily transforming that unfortunate oil-rich country into a wasteland ravaged by plagues, famine and feral thugs.
Thanks largely to the support they received from cultural warriors, whose activities they sponsored at the taxpayer’s expense, Néstor and, after his premature demise, his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner plus an assortment of unlovely cronies, got away with looting the country for almost 10 years before key members of the Judiciary decided it would be worth their while to take a closer look at what had been going on. Until then, they had contrived to overlook the evidence that had been staring them in the face. But when the balance of political power shifted and the protective alliances the Kirchnerites had formed began falling apart, they sensed that the time had come for them to go after the more notorious malefactors.
As the lorry-drivers’ boss Hugo Moyano must have realised by now, local leftists, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, are finding it increasingly harder to play the role of moral arbiters of society. By associating themselves with causes that appeal more to middle-class professionals than to down-to-earth working folk who have to live with the consequences of the reforms they bring about, more and more people find their preaching off-putting. In Argentina the reaction against what the British used to call “the chattering classes” has been less rancorous than in the US and much of Europe, but it is making itself felt. One result of the changes that are taking place was the election of Macri.
Unlike Mr and Mrs Kirchner, their successor in the Pink House would never have managed to win the backing of the cultural left even if, on winning office, he had proclaimed himself a born-again Marxist determined to defend an innocent country threatened by capitalist savagery. Coming as they do from a business background, Macri and the CEOs who flank him must play by a far more rigorous set of rules.