November 23, 2014
Graft at last in the dock
The indictment of businessmen Leonardo Fariña and Federico Elaskar on money-laundering charges finally authorizes an editorial comment on corruption. Observant readers may have noticed an absence of this issue in this space (even though the case involving Fariña and Elaskar, for example, has been talk of the town for over a year) and there are various reasons for this, none of which have anything to do with approval or complicity. Firstly, to criticize corruption as wrong is merely to state the obvious while the blanket condemnations of graft to which some politicians are prone are almost worse than useless — when everybody is guilty, nobody is. But more specific charges are not enough by themselves either. It is not our function to echo other people’s accusations and rumours (even if at least some of them end up being true and even when the Fariña/Elaskar case now vindicates in part the controversial investigative journalism probing it) until they are formally endorsed by the legal system, as has just occurred with Fariña and Elaskar.
So is this indictment a milestone towards ending impunity for decades of shameless corruption extending to the highest levels in Argentina? Perhaps but not necessarily. Both Elaskar and Fariña owe their sudden fame to a Sunday night television programme last year in which they were whistle-blowers (although never ratified in court) leading to a money-laundering probe centred on the Kirchnerite tycoon Lázaro Báez. If we look at justice in developed countries, we can see that while the theory is enshrined in liberal-democratic values and constitutional principles, in practice it often boils down to plea bargaining with whistle-blowers as the only way to break open the conspiracies of silence and networks of dummy owners (as amply illustrated in United States police and courtroom drama television series). In Argentina a whistle-blower’s lot is not a happy one — ask Mario Pontaquarto from the 2000 Senate bribery trial (ending in mass acquittal) and ask Fariña and Elaskar now. The gritty realism of cutting deals with some of the guilty might offend many anti-corruption crusaders but their stern idealism can find an outlet in other legal reforms — much stiffer punishment in general, along with return of ill-gotten gains, lifting such obstacles to conviction as the statute of limitations and the right not to incriminate oneself, etc.
Space is lacking for fuller debate other than insisting on that debate. Too many politicians are silent over corruption (thus it is striking that Sergio Massa’s Renewal Front so vocal on the mass public concerns of crime and inflation has so little to say here) while the eloquence of others is tantamount to silence as hot air. Let a real debate on corruption begin.