If Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the first serving Argentine vice-president to be sentenced for corruption, that is perhaps the less significant precedent set by Tuesday’s historic verdict in the Santa Cruz highway contract corruption trial. What seems more striking is that a supremely powerful politician could be tried and convicted with the coalition revolving around her movement still in power – and all this within the space of 43 months (the delays of the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding), an astonishing velocity for a deeply flawed judicial system blocking the conclusion of trials and the renewal of judges at every turn. This speaks volumes for the essential health of Argentine democracy amid the current socio-economic woes and all the frustrations of almost four decades (39 years as from today, to be exact). It might also serve to relegate the notion of a Peronist government as being synonymous with elected dictatorship, an outcome both sought by all too many of its friends and dreaded by almost all its foes.
Not that there was anything gracious about government reactions either before or after the verdict. On the eve of the verdict President Alberto Fernández went to the extreme of a nationwide broadcast in the belief that he had found a smoking gun for lawfare in the form of a get-together between judges and media executives on the Patagonian ranch of British billionaire Joe Lewis (a meeting which took place on October 13 with media coverage at the time but sparked the spontaneous presidential outrage several weeks later on December 5). In Kirchnerite eyes any contact between the Judiciary and mainstream media is adding two and two, especially when including a nephew of Clarín Group boss Héctor Magnetto, but the sheer weight of evidence in the trial (dozens of highway contracts accruing to crony capitalist Lázaro Báez with no prior experience in construction and paid in advance for roads not always completed) made any plotting superfluous – it is possible that the Clarín Group executives were also currying favour with the judges in order to obtain scoops. Not that any explanation of this irregular meeting was offered by either its participants or an opposition more interested in denouncing presidential overkill – it was at the very least imprudent on the part of the judges (with their discomfort reflected by the apparent fudging of invoicing) and it should be made the subject of disciplinary proceedings and pose serious questions about their (lack of) judgement. Yet the issue never warranted a nationwide broadcast, which boomerangs against the president for his usage of the illegal espionage which he is so busy denouncing against his predecessor Mauricio Macri.
The move failed to derail Tuesday’s verdict, whose historic importance cannot be underestimated – even if the trial does not end here with the verdict’s grounds due in March and sure to be contested while there are parallel trials to follow, even if Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will not go straight to jail to start serving her six-year sentence (protected by both the privileges of her vice-presidential status and her rights of appeal, as well as turning 70 in the next two months with the option of house arrest) and even if this was not the first corruption trial concluding in a sentence against impunity and the politics of plunder. But this verdict ends impunity at the very highest level against a political supremo in power and not an ex-president like Carlos Menem in 2001 or several not always leftist ex-rulers around the Latin American region – it was also accompanied by a ban from holding public office which the veep is taking on board for now, despite her strident defiance of the Judiciary. Defiance including dismissing her judges as a “firing-squad” for deciding guilt in advance – an accusation of judicial bias at least in part contradicted by the fact that four of her 12 co-defendants (including, curiously enough, the former Federal Planning Minister Julio De Vido generally regarded as the epicentre of Kirchnerite public works corruption) were acquitted.
Today’s 39th anniversary of democracy is something to celebrate, although all is not well even institutionally, as last week’s unseemly breakdown of parliamentary co-existence in Congress demonstrates – precisely over a judicial issue, the Council of Magistrates whose endless deadlock perpetuates the obsolescence of the court system. As always, democracy is a work in progress and it is fair to say last Tuesday that progress was underlined. President Fernández predictably protested the innocence of his veep and slammed the Judiciary – some may say he thus missed an opportunity to paraphrase his predecessor as from 39 years ago, Raúl Alfonsín, and tell the nation: “Merry Christmas, the house is in order.”