The recent indictment of a former president as part of a larger anti-corruption investigation is the latest in a series of cases targeting Argentina's elites, but some of the case's traits, and its potential consequences, make it unique.
Argentina has maintained a laser-sharp focus on the now-famous “notebook case” ever since the scandal broke almost two months ago. This focus intensified when a judge approved a request to prosecute former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is currently a sitting senator.
The notebooks in question belonged to Oscar Centeno, the former driver for ex-Planning Minister Julio de Vido’s secretary. The minister served between 2003 and 2015 during the presidential terms of both the late Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina. During this time, Centeno detailed the alleged movement of $56 million in cash between government officials and business leaders, most of whom operated in public works construction. They supposedly paid bribes to secure state contracts and bids.
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The notebooks landed in the hands of a journalist with Argentine newspaper La Nación in January. The reporter handed them over to a judge before publishing them eight months later. Judge Claudio Bonadío, who is overseeing the case and believes the bribes may reach up to $160 million, wasted no time in ordering the arrests of many of the suspects, among them top members of Argentina’s elite.
Corruption accusations like those against Fernández de Kirchner and her inner circle are nothing new in Argentina. Nor are the former president’s denials of culpability or complaints of “political persecution.”
However, several aspects unique to the notebook case show that the South American nation’s battle against corruption may be approaching an unprecedented breakthrough.
The revelations of alleged corruption found in the notebooks have opened a Pandora’s Box in Argentina’s political scene, setting off a chain reaction of first-time events in the country.
Judge Bonadío has demanded the arrest of dozens of government officials and elite business leaders who, until now, seemed untouchable. More than a dozen are currently under arrest, and more than 20 have exchanged insider knowledge for plea deals under a new law that may reduce the sentences of those who provide names and other useful information to prosecutors.
Among them are some of Fernández’s closest associates, including a former federal judge and several high-profile businesspeople.
Carlos Wagner, former head of the Construction Chamber trade association, stated that under the Kirchner and Fernández de Kirchner administrations, around 20 percent of the value of the country’s public works contracts was paid to the government officials who approved them, according to a report by Clarín.
Moreover, Paolo Rocca, one of the richest men in Argentina and the CEO of Techint Group, admitted that the company paid government bribes in 2008 so that Argentina would intercede on its behalf when the Venezuelan government wanted to close one of its subsidiaries operating in the neighboring country.
The New Plea Deal Law
A major reason behind the notebook case’s success has been that, for the first time in Argentina, a new plea deal law allows authorities to give sentence reductions or even acquittals to suspects who provide them with names or other information that is helpful to solving cases that involve crimes such as corruption and drug trafficking.
A striking number of the country’s business leaders have lined up to hand over information, including Angelo Calcaterra, a cousin of current President Mauricio Macri and former head of construction group IECSA, who admitted to making payments under the guise of “campaign contributions.”
The Amount of Money
Even though this does not seem to be the case where the most bribes were allegedly paid, the amounts of money allegedly involved are enormous, especially considering the dire economic situation Argentina is currently facing.
The fact that public officials and businesspeople allegedly moved up to $200 million in cash demonstrates the level of impunity in the country when it comes to corruption, which is key to understanding the case’s significance in national politics.
A Major Blow to Senator Fernández de Kirchner
The notebook case is only one in a long list of corruption-related accusations against the former president, including illicit association, fraud, illicit enrichment and money laundering.
While high levels of support may still buoy Fernández de Kirchner, it is impossible not to wonder if this case and its many plea deals will develop into the biggest blow yet to the senator.
Conspiracy Theories Put to the Test
Argentine society is extremely polarized politically, and that polarization has permeated all aspects of public life, including corruption investigations.
Those who support President Macri say there is no doubt corruption was a defining characteristic of the Kirchner administrations. To support their claims, they point mainly to the significant increase in their assets since their back-to-back terms began, as well as those of their closest allies.
Senator Fernández de Kirchner's supporters allege that this is a case of political persecution, claiming that the Macri administration has almost exclusively targeted supporters of the former president in its corruption investigations while ignoring accusations of similarly shady dealings within the current government. Macri critics also cited a lack of concrete evidence against Fernández de Kirchner.
But the explanations that the former president has given regarding the origins of her personal fortune are not exactly convincing. And the evidence of the involvement of many of her closest allies in corruption cases may prove too damning to justify continued support for the claim that this is a simple case of political persecution.
Some have called the notebook case the “new Operation Car Wash,” referring to the case that led to the imprisonment of former Brazil President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva. But despite the high level of public attention, it is unlikely that the case will follow the same path.
Corruption investigations are not uncommon in Argentina, but convictions are. In fact, 92 percent of cases never even go before a judge, according to a Council of Magistrates audit of all open cases between 1996 and 2006.
Also important to consider is that Fernández de Kirchner enjoys parliamentary immunity as a sitting senator. While the possibility of withdrawing this immunity has been debated, there is little chance of it happening. Perhaps the best illustration of just how rare it is for such immunity to be removed from Argentine politicians is the case of another former president and current senator: Carlos Menem. A slew of charges have been brought against him dating back to the 1990s, but he has never seen jail time for any of them.
Nonetheless, the growing number of elites willing to reveal the secrets behind their allegedly illegal business practices with the government may be the long-awaited sign that Argentina is finally willing to face one of its most deeply entrenched problems.