It’s worthy of a Netflix script. An Argentine judge ordered the arrest of prominent businessmen and former public officials who were in charge of overseeing public works during the administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015). They are charged with having been part of a massive corruption scheme that ran for years: over $200 million were allegedly paid in bribes in return for public contracts. The main evidence against them are copies of eight notepads in which Juan Centeno (a former military officer and government driver) detailed the movement of bags with millions of dollars in cash to and from government offices, apartments owned by the Kirchners, and even the presidential palace.
The press had dubbed this “Argentina’s Lava Jato,” after the mega-corruption scandal in neighboring Brazil that rocked the country’s political and business establishments and sent former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to jail. Undoubtedly, the “notebooks scandal” is one of the largest corruption cases in Argentina’s history, given the amount of the bribes, the duration of the payments, the importance of the officials involved (including the late Néstor Kirchner), and the detailed nature of the evidence.
Further, the case is the first after Argentina’s Congress passed a “Repentance Law” in 2016, which allows prosecutors to offer plea bargains to corruption suspects: Centeno has already agreed to confess and provide information in exchange for a lenient sentence, which could deepen the investigation. This is also the first time in Argentina that a corruption scandal involves not only public officials but also the “supply side” of corruption: businessmen who agree to pay bribes in order to get public contracts. In Brazil, several businessmen signed deals with the prosecution and provided valuable information; many expect their Argentine counterparts to do the same. Some of the accused have business ties with companies owned by President Mauricio Macri’s family, which has been historically strong in the public construction sector. But this pales in comparison to the direct evidence against former President Fernández.
A final coincidence has to do with the political repercussions of the scandal. In Brazil, Lava Jato sent Lula to jail even as he was leading polls to return to the presidency in elections this October. In Argentina, this new scandal hits Fernández just as her numbers were starting to climb ahead of the October 2019 presidential elections, a consequence of the serious economic problems facing Macri and a recent scandal involving irregular campaign contributions for his Cambiemos coalition. Just like Lula, Fernández immediately accused the judiciary of being politically biased, and of launching this new investigation to affect her chances of returning to the presidency. As with Lula’s followers, Fernández’s core support is unlikely to be eroded by these allegations.
Despite these similarities, there are reasons to believe that the Argentine scandal will not be as far-reaching as its Brazilian counterpart.
Unlike Brazil, where a number of independent judges and prosecutors have moved forward with corruption cases regardless of the political fallout, federal justice in Argentina is widely distrusted by citizens and known to be close to the political system. For instance, Claudio Bonadío, the judge in charge of the notebooks case and of many others involving Fernández, is close to non-Kirchnerist sectors within Peronism. Before becoming a judge, he worked for the Ministry of the Interior in the 1990s. A former federal judge close to Kirchnerism is suspected of having been part of the corruption ring described in the notebooks. Further, Argentine judges move to the pace of power: Corruption cases involving incumbent administrations tend to be dropped or stalled, and politicians are only seriously investigated after they leave office. Even then, the impunity rate of corruption cases is extraordinary. In other words, there are no Sérgio Moros in Argentina.
At the same time, Fernández is a senator, and as such has parliamentary immunity, unlike Lula. Only a special majority of the Senate can strip her of that protection: Cambiemos wants to, but cannot do it without the support of moderate, non-Kirchnerist Peronist senators, who refuse. They argue that allowing her to be arrested without a firm sentence would create a dangerous precedent. Octogenarian former President Carlos Menem (1989-1999), for instance, serves in the Senate and has avoided prosecution on numerous corruption cases during his term. With this protection, and given the sluggishness of the judiciary, Fernández will be free to run for president in 2019.
Another difference between the Argentine and Brazilian situations is the relative stability of the political landscape in the former. While it is impossible to predict the outcome of the Brazilian elections only two months before the vote, three camps seem to have consolidated in the Argentine political spectrum, with roughly 30 percent of support each: Kirchnerism (led by Fernández), Cambiemos (led by Macri) and moderate, non-Kirchnerist Peronists (which remain leaderless). Macri is likely to defeat Fernández in the second round but lose against a moderate Peronist such as Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey of Salta or former presidential candidate Sergio Massa.
Therefore, the government’s preferences regarding the “notebook case” are ambiguous. On the one hand, the scandal weakens Fernández, who is Macri’s greatest foe and popular among the poor, and who constantly attacks the government for the ongoing economic crisis and its IMF-endorsed austerity program. Just when the government’s support levels are at their lowest since Macri took office, the scandal could remind Argentines of why they elected him in the first place. If, however, Fernández’s presidential candidacy is irreparably damaged by this investigation, Macri could face a stronger Peronist candidate in 2019. Moreover, economic malaise combined with widespread allegations of corruption might fuel citizen’s anger towards the entire political class, and open the way for an outsider candidate.
The main lesson Argentina can extract from the Brazilian experience is that, once unleashed, massive corruption cases take a life of their own, their consequences hard to predict and contain. Historically, Argentina’s political and judicial systems (which are one and the same) have been extremely efficient in guaranteeing impunity. That ability will be tested like never before.
Binetti is a non-resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and visiting professor at Torcuato Di Tella University, based in Buenos Aires