Argentine Government Targets Widespread Civic Corruption
Press coverage and civilian impatience force officials to take action
BUENOS AIRES — THERE is probably no Argentine more revered here than Diego Armando Maradona, the soccer player who took his country to the world championship in 1986.So it was that Mr. Maradona's arrest in April on charges of cocaine possession marked, according to some analysts, a turning point in Argentina's history of tolerance toward official corruption and impunity for the well-connected few. "People want the law to be respected," says Luis Moreno Ocampo, a federal prosecutor whose six-man team tracks and prosecutes white-collar criminals in Buenos Aires. "They don't want any more illegality.... Society is demanding limits." That new attitude was evident earlier this year, when protesters in Catamarca province pushed the federal government to intervene locally because officials there had tried to cover up a murder case in which the officials' relatives were implicated. Mr. Moreno Ocampo cites another case, dubbed "Swiftgate" by the Buenos Aires newspaper, Pagina/12. It came to light in January when the paper made public the contents of a letter written by US Ambassador Terence Todman to the Argentine government. The letter alleged that officials solicited bribes from the Swift-Armour meatpacking company. "The Swift case is very important," Moreno Ocampo says. "It broke the pact of silence of the media." The scandal shook a minister, two undersecretaries, and the brother of President Carlos Saul Menem's wife, a presidential adviser. All lost their jobs. Governmental corruption has long seemed endemic to Argentina. But many contend it worsened after 1983. On the heels of the previous military regime, a new civilian government dismantled economic and political systems, but did not replace them with alternative institutions and rules of behavior, says Carlos Bruno, an economic consultant. Having a weak judiciary and lacking "rules of the game" has led to "huge corruption, mixed up with drug trafficking," Mr. Bruno contends. An alleged drug-money launderer, arrested last year in Spain, named as accomplices two other Menem in-laws working at the presidental palace, according to a story in the March issue of the Spanish news magazine Cambio 16. Menem fired his sister-in-law Amira Yoma, who was his appointments secretary, after the magazine described how she smuggled drug money into Argentina aided by her ex-husband, the customs director. He and another man have been charged. Corruption is hard to quantify, but a manifesto by Citizen Power, a foundation created in 1988 to help fight corruption, says "millions of dollars" are involved in court cases involving government fraud in purchasing, tax payments, bribes for state concessions, fraud against the Central Bank, and import-export fraud. A Pagina/12 report says the federal government is investigating cases of fraud whose total cost may reach more than $2 billion. After taking office in July 1989, Mr. Menem temporarily suspended cozy tax breaks for business. Recently he reinstituted some, but with greater controls. Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo's new economic plan has set controls to limit tax evasion. "The ruling class thinks it has the right to everything, without the responsibility of returning or giving anything [back to society]," says novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez. "What's missing is an examnation of the conscience." A recent opinion poll in greater Buenos Aires, by the Union for a New Majority Study Center, found that half of the respondents believe there is a "high level" of corruption among political parties, unions, in the National Congress, among businessmen, in the police, and in the federal government. With so many stories popping up recently, the corruption issue has become a political liability for Menem. "Corruption is a problem in a country with lots of regulations and high inflation for so many years," Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella says in an interview. "This has to be wiped out. The president is very keen on that." But some observers note that although Maradona was arrested red-handed, and a growing number of private businessmen are being prosecuted, investigations of government wrongdoing have resulted mostly in resignations. "Argentina is a country with a very high level of corruption, everywhere, not just in government, but in industry and the press, too," says Jorge Lanata, editor of Pagina/12. "Cases take a long time to go through court. It will take 10, 15, 20 years to end it."