Argentina tries breaking corrupt habits

A trove of evidence about payoffs to former presidents has accelerated a two-year campaign against corruption and brought greater promise of clean governance.

Policemen walk towards the home of former Argentine President and senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner for a raid ordered by a judge in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 23.

Many countries can only wish for such progress. Since 2015, when Argentina elected a new reform-minded president, it has made a swift and upward advance in the Corruption Perceptions Index, a world ranking compiled by the group Transparency International. Not bad for a country whose history of kleptocracy was made famous in the 1990s by a Broadway musical and world-hit movie, “Evita.”

But don’t smile for Argentina quite yet. The country still remains below average in the global ranking. And the limited reforms started by President Mauricio Macri have only begun to stem the systemic corruption that has long burdened one of South America’s wealthiest nations.

A big breakthrough came in early August. The respected La Nacion newspaper published revelations from “notebooks” kept for years by a chauffeur for a senior official tracking illegal payments from businesspeople to top government leaders. The most powerful recipients, according to the documents, were the former president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK), and her deceased predecessor and husband, Néstor Kirchner. One prosecutor claims a total of $160 million in cash was delivered between 2005 and 2015.

Authorities have arrested a number of business leaders and officials. Several of those have agreed to testify about the illegal payments in exchange for leniency. Serious corruption has long been rumored and occasionally revealed. Prosecuting such crimes has been slow because of a weak judicial system and a tolerance of a certain level of corruption.

The way in which the latest court cases unfold will help set the rules for future practices. They can help Argentina move away from crony capitalism. But just as important, the public mood is shifting, argues Laura Alonso, the head of Argentina’s national anti-corruption office. The people are “ready and hungry for a different and effective recipe for individual and national progress,” she wrote recently in the Americas Quarterly. On the other hand, CFK still retains around 30 percent support in the polls and is expected to run for president next year despite the corruption allegations, which she says are politically motivated.

With presidential and national elections set for October 2019, the Argentines have an opportunity to elect individuals committed to clean government and best-practice economic policies. So far, President Macri is taking the high road on the corruption cases, supporting thorough investigations that pursue the guilty in a transparent and equitable manner. He will be tested as elections approach, and he may feel the need to offset public unhappiness with Argentina’s struggling economy, as well as with the way he treats corruption that touches businesspeople with whom he has ties. From a political perspective, Macri stands to benefit if the investigations continue to reveal past corruption but do not put CFK into the role of a martyr before the elections.

Progress in turning the new corruption revelations into successful prosecutions and cleaner government will benefit not only Argentina. Other countries fighting the scourge of corruption might learn from its example.

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