June 19, 2013
Convicts get a break
A novel idea: political rallies with rehabilitation purposes
Ever since the armed forces slunk back to their barracks almost thirty years ago, Argentine politicians, even ones who say they share the ideas of such bloodthirsty characters as Juan Manuel de Rosas, Lenin and León Trotsky, have gone about their business in a remarkably peaceful manner. By the standards prevailing elsewhere, the country reacted in a positively Gandhian fashion when it was struck by a series of economic earthquakes that impoverished millions of people. And though many members of Mrs Cristina Kirchner’s administration express great admiration for the deeds of members of a neofascist outfit called the Montoneros that ran amok in the 1970s, thus giving the military a plausible excuse for seizing power yet again with the blessing of much of the population, they too seemed determined to ensure that never again would Argentina fall prey to political violence.
This happy state of affairs may be about to change. For some time now, Kirchnerite youth organizations such as La Cámpora have been mounting a recruitment drive in the country’s prisons, arranging matters so that convicts who prove willing to toe their line, like a pop musician who, not that long ago, burned his wife alive after dousing her with petrol and last June got sentenced to 18 years in jail, could attend political rallies. According to government spokesmen, political rallies are “cultural events” and are therefore useful for rehabilitation purposes, the assumption being that after listening to several hours of speeches by Cristina or one of her fervent supporters, hardened criminals will become law-abiding members of society. No doubt Education Minister Alberto Sileoni agrees: he has gone on record as saying that in his view street demos and student sit-ins represent a high point in the nation’s democratic culture.
It is unfortunate that this particular story surfaced in Clarín, a mass-circulation daily that has it in for the Kirchnerite government for reasons that have more to do with economic self-interest than with ideology or concern about institutional niceties. To soften the impact of what by rights should be a monumental scandal, official spokesmen sorry, spokespersons, led by Cristina herself, treated the revelation as just another attempt by a hostile newspaper to discredit the people’s government.
That manoeuvre may work for a while, but public disquiet can only intensify as awareness of what is going on spreads. Something very ugly is brewing but the government, far from trying to put an end in what at best is an insane programme undertaken to help convicted criminals become good citizens, and at worst an attempt by violence-prone political operators to form squadrons of latter-day black shirts or brown shirts ready to do the bidding of an increasingly authoritarian regime, is doing its utmost to encourage it.
Peronist factions, labour unions and football clubs have always had room in their ranks for contingents of heavies who help with what may be described as crowd control by keeping hecklers at bay and stressing their loyalty to the current boss by cheering him or her at appropriate moments. The fact that many such individuals tend to have criminal records rarely disturbs their employers, but in recent years politicians who care about their personal reputation have been reluctant to give jobs to people who are still serving long terms behind bars. As well as being dangerous, if news about it came out that would be very bad for their image, especially at a time when the country is awash with violent crime and in many people’s books law and order is an absolute priority.
Soon after coming to power in May 2003, Nestor Kirchner roped in as allies the leaders of some of the more obstreperous picket organizations; he appreciated that it would be better for him to buy them off so they would support him than to treat them as enemies. Given the circumstances, that was an intelligent move. And when Nestor took note of the adverse public reaction to the mobilization of the street fighters to intimidate the Shell oil company after it raised prices, he decided it would be better to rein them in.
It would seem that the boys of La Cámpora are less scrupulous about such things than was Cristina’s late husband, perhaps because they fear that, now that the Hugo Moyano’s lorry-drivers, men who on occasion like nothing better than trading punches, or even bullets, with anyone foolish enough to stand in their way, have moved into opposition, they would be at a disadvantage should street battles start erupting. In other words, they may well be preparing for war, a thought that would appeal greatly to the many who would dearly like to emulate their Montonero predecessors. If this is the case, the country is heading into dangerous territory. A recession that could well turn out to be far longer and deeper than even pessimists predict, it being always a mistake to underestimate the ability of Peronist governments to screw things up, would set the stage for increasingly violent confrontations in which murderous individuals of the kind La Cámpora and another Kirchnerite organization, “Vatayón militante”, (a slangy way of saying what in English would be something like “militant battalion”), are looking for in the country’s run-down prisons, would surely be in their element.