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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 22-06-2024 05:05

All in the family

Nepotism is an even more chronic vice of Argentine politics than corruption. And if nepotism requires nephews, these are forthcoming in the Javier Milei administration.

Nepotism is an even more chronic vice of Argentine politics than corruption. The current libertarian government barely emerging from its baby steps has yet to be nailed for any serious graft scam but the smoking guns are lying all around as far as nepotism is concerned. At the other end of the four decades of democracy Radical Raúl Alfonsín left office in 1989 with a fairly clean image despite the ravages of hyperinflation, but there were around 50 Storanis at all levels of government, national and provincial.

But let us start at the beginning (and also present). The word nepotism is derived from nepos, the Latin word for “nephew” (it originally meant “grandson” but gradually replaced the clumsier filius fratris). While its origins are sometimes ascribed to Augustus being the nephew of Julius Caesar (in fact he was his great-nephew), it is generally thought to have emerged from the Papal habit of favouring nephews for high office, not having children of their own by definition – at least not in theory since Pope Alexander VI had at least four, of whom Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia were the most famous.

So if nepotism requires nephews, these are forthcoming in the Javier Milei administration. Thus Congress Speaker Martín Menem is the nephew of a two-term president whom Milei aspires to emulate – Carlos Menem (1989-1989). Star spin doctor Santiago Caputo does not have a presidential uncle but almost as good – the alter ego of an ex-president (Mauricio Macri), the tycoon Nicolás ‘Nicky’ Caputo, whose Economy Minister cousin Luis Caputo could loosely be described as another uncle.

Nephews are not as close a relation as sisters and presidential chief-of-staff Karina Milei is exalted into co-governing Argentina with her brother according to some accounts with the frequent entries and exits in a volatile administration attributed to her whims more often than not. ‘K’ is arguably the rarest letter in the Spanish alphabet but extremely difficult to dislodge from Argentine politics.

But coming back to the Caputos and the Menems, they might be only just starting. Martín Menem may have the more prestigious post heading the Chamber of Deputies but his cousin Eduardo ‘Lule’ Menem (another nephew as being named after his ex-uncle, the late ex-president’s brother) might well wield more power behind the throne as the secretary and right-hand man of Karina Milei. Also look out for Martín’s elder brother Adrián, who first entered Congress almost a quarter-century before the inexperienced Speaker (in 1999) and thus might feel qualified to help him out. Santiago Caputo also has a brother, Francisco, who pops into the Casa Rosada to “coach” at regular intervals.

There was a very recent demonstration of the power of the Caputos in the Senate amendments to the ‘Ley de Bases’ omnibus bill and the accompanying fiscal package in the small hours of June 13. None of the many votes then was as overwhelming as the 65-6 rejection of Article III of the fiscal package to suppress tax breaks, of which the Tierra del Fuego industrial promotion scheme is the most flagrant beneficiary with ‘Nicky’ Caputo its leading profiteer (except for the Peronist tycoon Newsan’s Rubén Cherñajovsky). Simplistic to believe that this incredible display of solidarity with libertarian and Kirchnerite senators voting shoulder to shoulder was all due to the Caputo clan rallying around but it remains striking and Argentine electronics all the dearer.

Nepotism has been the common denominator of Argentine administrations from the Storanis through to the Caputos with siblings prominent. Carlos Menem was perhaps more famous for his corruption scandals starting with Swiftgate but there was no lack of nepotism from his brother Eduardo downwards. Fernando de la Rúa made his brother Jorge presidential chief-of-staff and Justice minister. Hilda ‘Chiche’ Duhalde was a key figure in the Eduardo Duhalde caretaker presidency while Néstor Kirchner made his wife president and his sister Santa Cruz Province governor. Macri issued a decree in 2018 against nepotism but current Buenos Aires City Mayor Jorge Macri’s career took off in that period. In the following administration Máximo Kirchner was undeservedly made Frente de Todos caucus chief in Congress until even he realised that he was not up to the job. In this paragraph we are only talking about the very top – nepotism has been rife at all levels of government.

Why this persistent nepotism? The systematic scepticism of Argentines is part of the explanation – the inability to trust people outside family and familiar circles. But perhaps a deeper reason is family loyalties being much stronger than any civic sense in the tradition of Mediterranean countries. If so, this would be bad news for libertarian plans to pull the state out of education or social welfare – slashing public university budgets would have more future if they received endowments of up to US$1 billion like Harvard and more social plans could be eliminated if charity did not begin at home. Nepotism is thus a curse extending way beyond politics.

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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