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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-03-2021 09:03

Is justice being done to justice?

It’s not realistic to go monkeying around with the Argentine legal system while entering into serious negotiations with the IMF.

When Count Dmitry Tolstoy (a cousin of the author of War and Peace) took office as the education minister of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, he proclaimed: “I shall consider my ministry a success when education has ceased to exist in Russia,” thus reflecting a then-prevalent reactionary sentiment that escalating revolutionary activity was the product of the rising expectations created by schooling and that ignorance was bliss. It might seem from this month’s developments that a kindred spirit to this Tolstoy would be an ideal candidate for the Justice Ministry here, with his more famous cousin penning Anna Karenina perhaps more in line for the Women’s Ministry. It might be going over the top to assert that the Frente de Todos administration is looking for a minister under whom justice would cease to exist but certainly “lawfare” (embracing a multitude of sins within the Judiciary and not leaving much out) – especially following the impetus from the change of venue (as opposed to acquittal) in favour of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last Monday.

At the time this column was written, Justice and Human Rights Minister Marcela Miriam Losardo, 62, was headed for Paris as ambassador to UNESCO (a consolation prize shunned by María Eugenia Bielsa when ousted from the Housing Ministry last November) without any replacement confirmed. Only four female members in the original 20-strong Cabinet of President Alberto Fernández so odd that the week of International Women’s Day should see half of them already out and stranger still that the driving-force behind these expulsions should also be a woman (Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner).

Not that the latter will automatically install one of her minions in the Ministry (although she might) – such a crass and probably gratuitous annexation in an election year would lack subtlety, entailing more risks than gains for the veep when she already controls most other judicial authorities (except Attorney-General for now). Justice Secretary Juan Martín Mena, 40, an ultra-Kirchnerite, is thus not as automatic a replacement as Deputy Health Minister Carla Vizzotti was when Ginés González García fell into disgrace over the “VIP vaccine” scandal last month. The names of deputies Martín Soria and Ramiro Gutiérrez were the first to surface but one dark horse could be Marisa Herrera, the law professor who thought up the Federal Tribunal for Arbitrary Sentences (who decides which sentences are arbitrary in the first place?) to banish lawfare. Along with Vizzotti this would at least restore the female component in the Frente de Todos Cabinet to its original quartet. But little point in continuing this guessing game since it is entirely possible that the name of the new minister will be known by the time this column is read on Saturday morning (although not at the time of writing).

Yet no matter who the new minister is, it is quite clear that their mission will be the all-out offensive against the Judiciary for which Losardo lacked the stomach – an offensive anticipated by both halves of the presidency in the first week of this month. Top priority for the government, which might be difficult for newcomers here to understand in the face of the daily total of confirmed coronavirus cases in four digits, the daily death toll in three digits and last year’s economic shrinkage in two digits – it might even prove difficult for the electorate here to understand (especially if the main thrust of reform is to make life easier for a trial-riddled vice-president rather than harder for criminals) although only time will tell with the midterms at least seven months away. Yet it would probably not be premature to point to a basic incompatibility between the aspiration to reach a debt settlement with the International Monetary Fund this year and the drastic judicial reforms presaged in the presidential state-of-the-nation message to open Congress at the start of this month – it is not realistic to go monkeying around with the Argentine legal system, thus undermining its credibility yet further, while entering into serious negotiations with the IMF. 

The Justice Ministry as such is a walking contradiction with the separation of powers as a potential Executive Branch parallel to the Supreme Court – there has never been a “Legislation Ministry” to tell Congress what to do. Yet this role as an executive watchdog has always been more nominal than real. Time to start fulfilling this column’s main purpose, which is to supply background from personal memory on current issues as much as to comment on them, while also drawing on last year’s series on the then-new (and already depleted) Cabinet for some ministerial history.

Until personal memory kicks in as from 1983, the latter will be the source. This ministry goes all the way back to the first five-strong Cabinet following the 1853 Constitution although it was then named the Justice and Public Education Ministry, an order of priorities which would have met the approval of the contemporary Count Dmitry Tolstoy. Between 1854 and 1949 there were 57 different ministers (four of them future presidents), a high turnover. In 1949 Peronism created the first Justice Ministry in its own right which continued through until 1983, except for the 1956-1966 period when it returned to the Education Ministry, this time as the junior partner, which was also the case during the 1983-9 Raúl Alfonsín presidency. There was thus no Justice Ministry in my first Buenos Aires Herald newsroom years until 1989 when the late Carlos Menem established a Justice, Security and Human Rights Ministry – the creation of the Security Ministry in 2010 led to its present designation of Justice and Human Rights Ministry.

There have been 17 Justice ministers since León Arslanian (still a prestigious legal figure today) in 1989. From the last century I chiefly remember Rodolfo Barra, who moved onto the Supreme Court, and Raúl Granillo Ocampo, born in the tiny La Rioja town of Anillaco like Menem and thus one of his closest aides. The Radical Fernando de la Rúa kicked off with Ricardo Gil Lavedra (a 1985 junta trial judge like Arslanian) but after 10 months replaced him with his brother Jorge. The Kirchner era began in 2003 with Gustavo Beliz (today Strategic Affairs Secretary) but the next year he ran afoul of the super-spook Jaime Stiuso and was replaced by the current Supreme Court Justice Horacio Rosatti, who also lasted only a year. Of the three remaining Kirchnerite ministers by far the most notorious was Aníbal Fernández, now Río Turbio coal trustee. Germán Garavano headed the Ministry throughout the 2015-2019 Mauricio Macri administration. So who comes next as the 18th minister in my time? 

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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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