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April 24, 2014
Sunday, December 22, 2013

The trickle-down effect

Police removing items found in an office belonging to Lázaro Báez as part of a tax evasion and money-laundering investigation.
By James Neilson
For the Herald
Shifts in economy affect perceptions

According to Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich, the mutinous cops and the thousands of looters whose rampage helped them get a big pay rise were working on behalf of coup-mongers, nasty individuals associated with “remnants of the dictatorship” and sinister “corporations” that are determined to put an end to Argentina’s already 30-year long affair with democracy. Few bought that particular explanation. Most preferred the one offered by the former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde and a number of Roman Catholic clerics who blamed the anarchy on corruption. Like old-fashioned supporters of rule by aristocrats, they believe in the trickle-down effect.

As Duhalde put it: when people in high places practice looting, they encourage others lower down the social scale to do the same. Though it seems logical enough to assume that the behaviour of members of a country’s elite will sooner or later be mimicked by the rest, and politicians themselves are fond of going on about the importance of “role models”, things tend to be more complicated than such theorists make out. If they were right, a government dominated by hard-working and scrupulously honest puritans would find it easy to cure Argentina of its many social ills merely by setting a good example. Of course, for that to happen, the electorate would have to vote for such people, but the majority view seems to be that all politicians, including the ones who boast about their high ethical standards, are much the same.

The argument between Capitanich and other Kirchnerites who blame what happened when the police refused to patrol the streets on coup-mongers and those who appear to think the government has turned Argentina into a country of thieves has less to do with sociological analysis than with political realities. After a prolonged absence, morality is making a comeback. By adding the allegedly disastrous consequences among the lower orders of perceived dishonesty at the very top to the charge sheet the government must face, its opponents are providing themselves with an excuse for doing their best to shorten its term in office. The best way to achieve this would be to arrange for the impeachment of Cristina and Amado Boudou. Distasteful though such a procedure may be, there is certainly nothing undemocratic about it.

Until fairly recently, any attempt to force the President and, while he was still with us, her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, to give a plausible explanation of how they managed to acquire a great deal of money was bound to fail. Much of the judiciary was on side, and, as the election results reminded us, so too were most other people.

Had either of them mistranslated Richard Nixon and gone on nationwide TV and said “yes, we are both crooks”, their poll ratings would barely have dipped. They might even have gone up a bit. When Cristina was re-elected with 54 percent of the votes, it was certainly not because the electorate thought she was squeaky clean and would never dream of accepting suitcases full of dollar bills flown in from Venezuela.

As long as the economy seems to be doing well, few people care about corruption. It is only when it looks as though it is going to the dogs that attitudes change. This is now happening. For years it has been taken for granted that Lázaro Báez, a former bank teller who very quickly became a tycoon, winning one juicy government public works contract after another, is a Kirchner family bagman, but until quite recently few saw much wrong with that. But then interest in his links with Cristina became so intense that, a few days ago, he called on the courts to ban all references to his activities, while Attorney General Alejandra Gils Carbó, an unabashedly fervent Kirchnerite, threw a spanner in the works of a public prosecutor, José María Campagnoli, by suspending him for looking too closely into what was going on.

Cristina’s wholehearted defence of Boudou and Báez, plus her underlings’ willingness to go to almost any lengths to keep them out of the law’s clutches, are not doing her own reputation much good. On the contrary, her determination to block investigations that could shed light on her financial arrangements makes it look as though she has a great deal to hide. It also reinforces the general impression that she and her government are in deep trouble. Combined with an economic slowdown, rampant inflation, numerous blackouts whenever it gets hot, strikes and looting sprees, the desperate attempts to hamstring Campagnoli and save Báez have helped spread the feeling that the Kirchnerites are fighting a delaying action but fear that the game will soon be up.

Were it not for the dark shadow of corruption that is hanging over her, Cristina could take a back seat for the next couple of years until her term finally runs out, so either a vaguely Kirchnerite team or, better still, a coalition of the best and brightest, could try and sort out the appalling economic mess her government has brought about or, at the very least, prevent it from reaching nightmarish proportions. Unfortunately, that option is too dangerous for her to contemplate. She simply cannot afford to let people think she has become too weak to stop the judicial machinery in its tracks. This being the case, she presumably feels she has little choice but to do her utmost to stay the course no matter what happens to the rest of the country.

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