The politicians, jurists, journalists and others who for years did their best to persuade people that corruption is bad and that individuals who are found guilty of it should be put behind bars are in an upbeat mood. Elisa Carrió, Margarita Stolbizer, Claudio Bonadio, Jorge Lanata et al believe it was thanks almost entirely to their sterling efforts that some Kirchnerite wrongdoers are already behind bars and many others could soon join them. However, though they are certainly entitled to feel vindicated by what is happening, they surely owe more than they would prefer to recognise to the gyrations of the international soybean market. When prices of that desirable commodity were sky-high, corruption flourished greatly both here and in Brazil, but when they floated back to earth, economic problems multiplied in both countries. As a result, people became less willing than before to shrug off the blatant rapacity of members of the governing elite and their cronies. Had money in sufficient quantities to sustain the illusion that the economic outlook was bright continued to pour in, influential members of the Judiciary who are currently making the running would have remained reluctant to apply the law to notoriously greedy politicians and their business friends.
Now that the tide has turned, few days go by without yet another Kirchnerite getting arraigned on charges of helping himself or herself to a large, on occasion an extremely large, amount of money from the public purse. Almost all the accusations are plausible. There is evidence aplenty that, soon after moving from their modest residence in Río Gallegos to rather more sumptuous quarters in Buenos Aires, Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner set about systematically looting the country. What is more, they did not make much of an effort to prevent outsiders from knowing what they were up to. Why should they, if most people assumed that it was perfectly normal for senior politicians, as well as police chiefs, judges and trade union bosses, to enrich themselves at the taxpayers’ expense? Perhaps they thought that in return for their services they really deserved to get their hands on whatever happened to be within reach.
Corruption thrives in societies in which it is taken for granted that all politicians are much the same and that those who complain about it do so out of envy or because they think it would be a smart career move, not because they truly believe that public figures should at least try to be honest. That is one reason why campaigners against sharp practices are fond of pointing out that “corruption kills,” as it sometimes does, or that the money purloined by those who are in a position to do so could be used to pay for hundreds of hospitals or schools. Were this not the case, they would have to go on about the importance of meeting stern ethical standards, an approach which, as they are aware, would be worse than useless; outside church gatherings, holier-thanthou preachiness invites ridicule.
Until about three years ago, relatively few people in Argentina worried that much about rampant corruption in high places. As far as most were concerned, that was how the world worked and it would be naïve to think otherwise. Neither Néstor’s habit of hugging safes full of cash while drooling over their contents nor his wife’s growing collection of hotels and other bits of real estate cost the ruling clique much public support. What is more, had Cristina managed to knock a hole in the Constitution in order so she could seek a third consecutive term in office, she might well have won the election Daniel Scioli lost. Despite all that has been said about her since she flounced out of the Pink House after refusing to hand her successor the symbols of power, the former president has retained the support of a significant proportion of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires province.
According to the chairman of Transparency International, José Ugaz, “in too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.” Ugaz is right, but it so happens that the men and women corruption hurts most also tend to be the keenest admirers of the malefactors who are keeping them down.
Cristina may have been abandoned to her fate by much of the middle class – not all, some would-be progressives still like her – but among the poor who barely manage to scrape a living in the rundown neighbourhoods of Greater Buenos Aires she remains popular, though that could change if enough of them come to regard María Eugenia Vidal as their new benefactress. An appropriate motto for such people would be the one chanted by the gladiators of old: “morituri te salutant”, that is, “we who are about to die, salute you.”
Before a society can become as squeaky clean as moralists think it should be, a majority will have to convince itself that many top politicians are not merely corrupt but are also, for that very reason, incapable of delivering the goods they promised. The “clean hands” campaign that provoked turmoil in Italy and Brazil’s even more spectacular “Lava Jato” or “Car Wash” started sweeping all before them when more and more people came to the conclusion that politicians more interested in their own bank accounts than in the welfare of their compatriots were ruining their respective countries.
Once a connection between corruption and a society’s overall performance has been established, campaigners should find it fairly easy to convince enough of their compatriots that kleptocratic governments are bound to make things even worse because far too many of their members have grown accustomed to subordinating everything to their own personal wellbeing. The cynical but nonetheless appealing notion that it is better to let allegedly warmhearted crooks who say the right things run the show because they are more “human” than the puritans who attack them has done much to hold back all the countries in Latin America. Unpleasant as the thought may be, economic hard times have done more to discredit that particular political theory than impassioned speeches, anti-corruption crusaders or investigative journalists ever did.