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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 03-12-2021 22:16

Does corruption matter?

The blatant politicisation of the Judiciary does nothing to make Argentina look like a good place in which to do business.

Some historians think the Soviet Empire imploded because the ubiquitous corruption that was one of its most notable features deprived its Marxist-Leninist rulers of what moral authority they may once have had. China’s Communist Party bosses seem to agree: from time to time, they execute officials with a bullet in the head for appropriating public money. And in many democratic countries, the slightest whiff of sleaze can set off a huge crisis.

Luckily for many politicians, people here tend to be more easygoing than in the developed world or China. Apparently minor misdeeds that in Northern Europe or even Japan could topple a government, or at the very least unseat a cabinet minister, often get overlooked. And, as the prominence of the current Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner keeps reminding us, if you are powerful enough, being plausibly accused of engaging in industrial-scale corruption and looting millions or even billions of dollars worth of public money will not stop you from continuing to play a key role in politics. What is more, with the help of friendly magistrates and the like who are willing to give you the benefit of all conceivable doubts and legal niceties, you can get the charges you face summarily dismissed.

Unfortunately for Argentina, the leaders of most important foreign countries feel obliged to take corruption seriously. Many, among them US President Joe Biden, may be hypocrites who have acquired considerable wealth by dubious means, but nonetheless they insist on giving their backing to moralistic organisations that try to make politicos everywhere obey the same set of rules. Telling Argentines they really should behave like Scandinavians may seem quixotic, but the penalties for refusing to do so can be steep.

Needless to say, the blatant politicisation of the Judiciary does nothing to make Argentina look like a good place in which to do business. Would-be investors are reluctant to try their luck in countries in which notoriously greedy politicians call all, or most, of the legal shots. Even if they personally have nothing much against bribing helpful foreign officials, they know that if they are found out they could be in dire trouble back home.

 Just how many businessmen in the United States, Europe or Japan will have been put off by the recent decision of two judges, Adrián Grunberg and Daniel Obligado, to clear Cristina and her offspring of money-laundering charges without an oral trial will never be known, but by behaving in this way they surely drove yet another nail into the country’s financial coffin, as did another Kirchnerite magistrate, Martín Bava, by putting Mauricio Macri on trial for allegedly ordering some illegal wire-tapping, an accusation the former president and his supporters think is utterly ridiculous. In countries whose rulers pride themselves on their alleged determination to do everything by the book, such tit-for-tat judicial warfare is frowned upon.

Cristina’s admirers speak as though they are well aware that the enormous amount of evidence of wrongdoing that her accusers have piled up against her is just right-wing propaganda, a mountain of fake news put together by ruthless and endlessly inventive enemies who, in their view, have somehow managed to create an alternative universe in which white is black, two plus two makes five and Cristina (who says she was “a successful lawyer” but never won a case) got rich by illicit means. Do any of them really believe this? Probably not, but that does not stop them from pretending to take their own rhetoric at face value. As far as they are concerned, only politics counts and they have thrown in their lot with Cristina so they must pretend to think she never broke the law. 

In most countries, but especially in Argentina, political loyalties depend more on tribal loyalties than on a rational analysis of the available options. It is in large measure a question of one’s sense of identity. Kirchnerism has survived for so long – almost 20 years – because a large number of people have it in for its designated foes, the once well-off members of the middle class who according to their critics are all selfish reactionaries who are unhealthily keen on capitalism. However, despite Kirchnerite efforts to transfer resources from those who have managed to stay afloat to the many men and women who have long been under water; their stranglehold over the very poorest is clearly weakening. This has less to do with any concern about corruption than with a growing shortage of hard cash aggravated by rampant inflation. Playing fairy godmother is difficult when the money starts to run out, as it certainly has in Argentina.

A version of Gresham’s law, according to which “bad money drives out good,” can be applied to public life. When crooks abound in politics, honest men and women prefer to dedicate themselves to something else. This suits the many who want things to continue much as they are. Some openly criticise the few brave eccentrics who break ranks, deriding them as “informers” or “traitors” for denouncing crimes committed by fellow politicians or bureaucrats. Others merely salve their own conscience by saying that, much as they themselves dislike graft of any kind, corruption has always been so widespread it would be grossly unfair to pick on the late Néstor Kirchner, his spouse and their retainers for doing what so many other politicians, government officials, magistrates and others have always done.

In countries like Argentina, corruption is an informal tax which benefits unscrupulous members of the political class, the Judiciary, the bureaucracy and the police by allowing them to enjoy the standard of living they think they deserve. If that were all there was to it, the harm done would be limited, but corruption also affects their behaviour in office. People like Cristina and her cronies, who depend on clandestine earnings, soon realise they had better put their own interests and those of like-minded colleagues well and truly first and forget all that guff about caring for the common welfare, let alone worrying about the fate of the country they supposedly serve.

By distorting just about everything in this way, corruption has already done much to make Argentina one of the worst performing countries in the entire Western world; her only significant rivals in this department are Venezuela and Cuba. Unless something is done to stop the rot, it could soon make her an international pariah boycotted not just because she refuses to honour her debts, which is something corrupt people are prone to do, but also because her rulers’ willingness to subordinate absolutely everything else to the defence of the Kirchner family’s business makes her a dangerous source of contamination.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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


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