Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has proven to be an able weaver of words and concepts, allowing her to build larger than life narratives that ultimately validate her vision of politics as a power struggle between antagonistic groups of interest where the ends justify the means. Her excellence has translated into a formidable political career that even today, far from her brightest moment, puts her at the centre of Argentina’s power scene, in yet another climactic moment.
The tribunal judging the ‘Vialidad’ public works graft case is expected to reach a verdict that will condemn the former president in some sort of way, validating the accusations of corruption against her, Kirchnerite businessman Lázaro Báez and several government officials, while painting an explicit picture of the Kirchnerist matrix of corruption that ultimately became a major component of their fall from grace with a large portion of society. It will also confirm the bias of an important social group that identifies with anti-Kirchnerism that behind all of her grandiloquence there was just a thirst for gold. And it will also substantiate the position of their antagonistic group that is convinced of the existence of “lawfare,” meaning an orchestrated political persecution of progressive political leaders who dared to defend the popular masses from the onslaught of the International Right, financed by Wall Street. While the verdict isn’t final in that it can — and will — be appealed and therefore will not lead to effective prison time anytime soon if at all, it will give meaning to Cristina’s epic struggle for both sides of la grieta, Argentina’s stark political polarisation, and will once again be one of the defining factors of the political battle as we enter yet another electoral year.
How corrupt were they, really? Well, it’s hard to tell exactly. But there should be little doubt of the rampant levels of corruption that occurred during the three mandates in which Néstor and Cristina Kirchner led the government. Corruption is much more of a systemic problem in Argentina than a singular characteristic of Kirchnerism, so one could argue that they could be seen more as symptom than cause. And yet, they were really good at it. Néstor always made it clear that a competitive politician needs financing, and so he put in place collection mechanisms that used the power of the state to extract concessions and kickbacks. This escalated to a massive scale once they made the jump from their home Patagonian province of Santa Cruz to the national stage, and went into overdrive once the economy jumpstarted after the 2001-2002 implosion on the back of the global commodities supercycle.
Financing a political project using a shady collection mechanism that was leveraged on public works projects and the sort may be one of those necessary evils under the Kirchnerite conception of reality. And when there’s that much money being tossed around in duffel bags, it’s hard for everyone participating to resist. Or maybe it’s the only way for the system to work, if everyone gets their cut. What’s apparent is that Néstor, Cristina, and several of their top officials and preferred businessmen became extremely rich by playing this game.
It’s difficult to imagine Lázaro Báez’s meteoric rise from bank clerk to multimillionaire unless he truly was the Patagonian Warren Buffet. According to the prosecution, he owned 293 properties including more than 400,000 hectares in Santa Cruz to become the second or third largest landowner in Argentina. It’s as obscene as the fortune of Néstor Kirchner’s late private secretary Daniel Muñoz, who was found to be sitting on at least US$70 million in real estate in the United States and Caribbean archipelago Turks & Caicos, and another 113 properties scattered throughout Argentina. Muñoz and his widow, Carolina Pochetti, even owned two apartments in New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel, just off Central Park. The Kirchner family’s own fortune raises suspicion. It consists of dozens of properties — most of which were supposedly acquired before Néstor entered into public service — including hotels and millions of dollars in cash. At least since 1987, their main occupation and preoccupation has been politics, the year Néstor was sworn in as mayor of Río Gallegos, only to become governor of Santa Cruz and then president. By 1989 Cristina had won her own post as provincial deputy in Santa Cruz. With over three decades in public service, the Kirchners must have been incredibly business savvy and capable multitaskers to earn such a net worth, particularly as the country has been on a wild rollercoaster ride that has continuously destroyed the economy.
Trial prosecutors Diego Luciani and Sergio Mola have become heroes to one part of the electorate for mounting an impassioned accusation against CFK and another 13 defendants – the other “half” have developed a deep hatred for the pair, considering them paid stooges. Their accusation alleges an illicit association to defraud the state led by Fernández de Kirchner that benefited Baéz and his group of companies to the tune of more than US$1 billion. In her defence, CFK’s lawyers argued that political decisions that guide public policy cannot be considered criminal, citing the passing of bills including the budget and regional budget execution systems that make it impossible for the president to be the head of an illicit association. In other words, a democratically elected government using state institutions to lead a plan that is politically motivated may seem disagreeable to many, but by no means does it constitute criminality. This is the same argument being used in other cases faced by Cristina, including the “dollar futures” and Memorandum of Understanding with Iran cases that have received initial favour in the courts. At the same time, Cristina has accused the Judiciary of being the continuation of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, responding to foreign powers and the geopolitical right in an attempt to stifle the Peronist political movement by metaphorically executing her by “firing squad” with the aid of the mainstream media.
Some of her arguments could ring true, but this case — along with the ‘Cuadernos’ corruption notebooks case — is different in that the ultimate beneficiaries of these policies are individuals tied to the Kirchnerite governments. In the same way that it sounds ridiculous to investigate Mauricio Macri and Christine Lagarde for the emergency IMF bailout, there are many shady negotiations that occurred during the previous administration that could very well be found to be clear cases of corruption, and these must be investigated.
As usual, Argentina’s needs are contradictory. Kirchnerite corruption must be investigated and prosecuted. The Macri administration should be analysed with the same level of scrutiny. And at the same time, the judicialization of the role of president must stop being a common political tool to truly become a counterbalance aimed at curbing crimes perpetrated from the top magistracy. All of this while the country finds itself pulled apart by a deep wave of polarisation and seemingly constant electoral campaigning. Heading into 2023, CFK’s judicial woes will remain front and centre, whatever post she decides to run for.