For all but members of the rapidly dwindling flock of serious Christians, St Augustine of Hippo is remembered only as the fourth-century Church father who, to the delight or, in some cases, relief of future generations of sinners, begged the Lord to make him chaste “but not yet.” Over a millennium and a half later, many politicians here in Argentina and elsewhere feel much the same way. They know that from now on they should try to do everything by the book because corruption is no longer considered to be just a minor matter, something to do with local traditions that give a warm human touch to what would otherwise be cold impersonal transactions. Instead, it has come to be seen as a deadly disease which has nasty consequences for societies that are afflicted by it. Even so, for reasons the pious among them hope the long-dead Roman theologian from North Africa would have understood, they find it hard to give up ways to which they have grown accustomed.
For years, local politicians took it for granted that they were fully entitled to get paid a little extra for whatever services they rendered. After all, their official emoluments were often laughably meagre and – given the importance of their services to democracy and their need to keep up appearances – they surely deserved to get much more. The people they did business with and, by and large, the electorate agreed. Had the sums involved remained merely symbolic, few would have objected, but that was never the case. In recent years, well-placed politicians and their minions just about bankrupted the country by setting up personalised tax systems that enabled them to rake in billions of dollars. If some estimates are to be believed, while in office Mr and Mrs Kirchner may well have managed to steal more than anyone else on earth. They also did a huge amount of harm by awarding contracts to whoever offered them most money. It is said that Cristina even went so far as to sell a presidential decree for US$600,000 to a needy businessman.
Whether or not the Patagonian couple acquired more loot while about it than their African, Arab and Asian rivals is an open question. When industrial-scale graft is involved, reliable figures are hard to come by. What is not in doubt is that ubiquitous corruption helped speed Argentina’s slide from being a rich country – one that was better off than Switzerland, let alone Japan, by the standards prevailing a century ago – to its present state as a poverty-stricken backwater which has already fallen behind Uruguay and Chile.
To make the situation worse for individuals who are used to receiving bribes and would be hard-pressed to stay afloat without them, the North Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans, are reluctant to get involved with countries in which officialdom is suspected of being on the take for fear of being accused of malfeasance by the authorities back home. All this, plus public indignation, has given Mauricio Macri’s government and part of the Judiciary little choice but to make fighting corruption a priority.
The task they have set themselves is a formidable one. If the experience of Italy and Brazil is anything to go by, the costs of rooting out corruption could turn out to be far higher than Macri and the judges who are in full cry would like to think. The vigorous “clean hands” campaign that was started in Italy by the public prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro in 1992 put paid to the old political establishment by eviscerating the old Socialist and Christian Democrat parties that until then had shared power, but the hole they left was first filled by Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga bunga outfit and, after the forerunner of the reality show star Donald Trump failed to do much to cure his country’s many ills, by the Five-Star and League coalition, a combination of playful anarchists and gritty nationalists whose behaviour has other Europeans worried. What is more, since then the once thriving Italian economy has remained comatose.
In Brazil, the ongoing “Car Wash” operation led by Federal Judge Sergio Moro not only stunned the moderately leftist Workers’ Party of quickly ousted president Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who still happens to be his country’s most popular politician – but also left the entire business community in disarray. Brazil is currently suffering her worst economic slump in a great many years and it is reported that many people feel a return to military rule would not be a bad thing.
Such precedents are not exactly encouraging. Neither is the fact that corruption here has long been so widespread that most people have either indulged in it to get a cop to overlook some minor offence or a bureaucrat to do the necessary paperwork or, at the very least, have turned a blind eye to what was going on in front of them. Statesmen such as the late Arturo Illia who became famous for their own personal honesty must have been aware that party stalwarts whose support they needed were up to no good.
The general assumption that, with the possible exception of a few saintly eccentrics, everyone is at it helps explain the indifference of large segments of the population toward corruption in high places. Many people dwelling in the grimier barrios of Greater Buenos Aires evidently think it is unfair to pick on Cristina because they believe the rest of them are just as greedy. In an effort to make them change their minds, anti-corruption campaigners who know it is useless to take a moralistic approach say corruption not only kills, blaming a 2012 train crash in which 51 people died and the Cromañón nightspot blaze of December 2004, in which the number of fatalities came to 191, on government officials who cared more for dirty money than for the safety of their compatriots, but also deprives the poor of much-needed amenities.
It would seem that treating corruption as a practical matter rather than a question of ethics is having an impact on public opinion, hence the huge street protests that took place throughout the country last Tuesday in which angry crowds demanded that Cristina be stripped of her parliamentary immunity so she can be clapped in jail. Her fellow Peronist senators got a part of the message and allowed a judge to inspect some of her properties, but most remain reluctant to hand her over to the growing number of people who would like to see her put away for a very long time.