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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 07-10-2023 06:55

Corruption as a way of life

In Argentina, there are thousands of men and women who, like Martín Insaurralde, have grown accustomed to milking the country’s political institutions.

Not that long ago, in the United Kingdom, a government minister was booted out of office for lying about a speeding offence by saying that his wife had been behind the steering wheel. In Argentina, where it is taken for granted that most politicians are corrupt, bending the truth about such a trivial matter would surely have passed unnoticed. After all, for about a decade, by far the most popular politician in the land was a lady who had been plausibly accused of looting the public purse to the tune of several billion dollars and of allowing her underlings to pick up crumbs (many worth the odd million) that fell from her table.

Though Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s star is waning fast, until very recently she still polled better than anyone else with the exception of Javier Milei, the chainsaw man who says he is against everything she stands for though (for what may be described as tactical reasons) he is reluctant to call her a crook.

The Peronist presidential candidate, Sergio Massa, must be praying that the bulk of the electorate continues to regard rampant high-level corruption as just part of the natural order of things. For the last couple of weeks, the news media have been dominated by two ongoing scandals. One came about when a character nicknamed ‘Chocolate’ was found using the credit cards of 48 employees of the Buenos Aires Province Legislature to extract money from a cash machine; the second, which had an even bigger impact, had to do with photographs of a well-known Peronist operative, Martín Insaurralde, living it up with a feisty ‘model’ on a yacht sailing near the Spanish resort of Marbella.

Since reaching adulthood, Insaurralde, who is now 53, has been on the public payroll. He has also become uncommonly rich; it has been reported that on getting divorced, he persuaded his former wife to stop bothering him by handing her a cool US$20 million, a sum which, by all accounts, he was well able to afford. So, how did he allegedly do it? It is generally assumed that, like hundreds of others who have acquired fortunes by mysterious and presumably devious means, he acquired his money by making good use of his political connections.

Unluckily for Insaurralde, it would seem that for him, the game is over, what with lawyers and government officials, urged on by impatient journalists, poring over his accounts on the lookout for evidence of tax-dodging, money-laundering, extortion, involvement in illegal betting rackets and other misdemeanours. No doubt he thinks all this is terribly unfair and that former friends, among them Massa, who have good reasons to want to avoid outside scrutiny into their own financial affairs, have made him the scapegoat for sins that are regularly committed by many members of the circles they frequent. However, as he must be aware, on occasion politicians feel they have little choice but to sacrifice one of their own in order to placate those who say they disapprove of corrupt practices, and, after those photos of him drinking champagne aboard an expensive yacht with Sofia Clérice entered the public domain, Insaurralde became the obvious choice.

As was to be expected, Insaurralde’s fall from grace, like the revelations about the credit-card scam that preceded it, quickly set off a tidal wave of moralising. Opposition leaders, commentators and academics professed themselves shocked to the core by the “obscene” behaviour of politicians who live like Gulf sheikhs while driving millions of Argentines into extreme poverty.

If the general populace agrees with them and expresses the same sentiments on polling day, Massa’s hopes of winning the Presidency and Axel Kiciloff’s of remaining governor of Buenos Aires Province will be well and truly dashed. Though this could happen, Cristina’s ability to pile up huge numbers of votes long after it had become clear that she used her power to make herself and those surrounding her very rich indeed should warn them against expecting too much from an as yet hypothetical moral awakening. In this part of the world, the desperately poor have always been far more likely to admire scoundrels than to condemn them.

To the bewilderment of the many who take a dim view of populism, they see no connection between their own plight and the self-centred behaviour of their elected representatives and are unimpressed by those who tell them that corruption kills and that the money stolen by the Kirchnerites and others much like them could have been used to build hundreds of schools and hospitals.  This is why they keep voting for politicians they must know are as crooked as they come.

As “Chocolate” inadvertently reminded the public, the Buenos Aires Province Legislature’s main function is to provide a few hundred politicians and their hangers-on with a decent income. Members are entitled to give jobs to a considerable number of individuals; many hire semi-literate down-and-outs who have to hand back most of what they allegedly earn to their benefactors who then squirrel the money away by investing it in property or the like. Apart from this, the parliamentarians do very little. They may meet now and then to exchange gossip and, while on the premises, pass into law whatever the provincial government puts before them, but that is about all. Like their counterparts in most other provincial assemblies and municipalities, almost all are non-entities who got where they are by having their name printed on an electoral list headed by some widely-known local boss to whom they swear allegiance.

In Argentina, there are thousands of men and women who, like Insaurralde, have grown accustomed to milking the country’s political institutions. Some have become rich even by international standards, others have had to make do with what elsewhere would be regarded as a relatively modest income but which here is enough to make them relatively prosperous. This would be tolerable if they governed the country well or if they merely stood aside and allowed the private sector to do its stuff but, needless to say, this has not been the case. Instead, they have dutifully obeyed politicians at the top whose single-minded determination to steer yet more money towards their own coffers has already brought the country to its knees. Unless they are replaced by a better lot, they could end up destroying it.  

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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