Corruption probes close in on Argentina’s Fernandez
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Corruption allegations always swirled around former President Cristina Fernandez during her two terms in office, but they never stuck.
Now, the walls seem to be closing on the fiery populist leader who typically criticized those who dared to question her management and ethics. In the past week, a federal prosecutor has asked that she be included in a widening investigation into money laundering. Her former transportation secretary and a businessman with close ties to her family were arrested in separate corruption probes that could implicate her. A separate money-laundering probe into hotels owned by her family has been relaunched.
To top it off, she has been called to testify Wednesday in an alleged scheme to manipulate Argentina’s currency, marking the first time she has been legally summoned in an investigation against her.
“This has happened all of a sudden,” said Sergio Berensztein, a local political analyst and pollster. “Four months ago, Cristina (Fernandez) was still one of the most powerful people in Argentina.”
But then, she was succeeded in the presidency in December by a conservative political rival, Mauricio Macri, the former Buenos Aires mayor and son of one of the country’s richest businessmen.
Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, had been the most dominant political leaders to come out of Argentina in decades and are often credited with lifting the country out of its worst economic crisis in 2001. But detractors say their social policies contributed to spiraling inflation and criticize her combative rhetoric, the couple’s personal enrichment, and their ties to scandals. She always dismissed the accusations as lies by the press or defamations by enemies aimed at discrediting the achievements of their collective 12 years in power.
While the corruption cases seem to be getting closer to Fernandez, she hasn’t been formally charged with as a suspect in any crime. When she decided not to run for another office last year — such as senator, a move that would have afforded her certain immunities — her supporters said it showed she had nothing to hide.
“Of course, we think this all goes back to political motives,” said Daniel Filmus, a Fernandez ally and former Argentine education minister. “This is revenge by sectors that were punished by the politics of economic growth and social equality that were led by Cristina.”
Since Fernandez ended her term in December, the new administration has promised to crack down on the corruption that has long plagued Argentina. Analysts say that has emboldened judges who are now more independent to pursue sensitive cases against the former leader and her close circle without fear of retribution.
“When Fernandez was president, she exercised power very forcefully and everyone was scared,” Berensztein said. “But this fear has dissipated.”
A once seemingly untouchable friend of the presidential couple was arrested last week as soon as he landed in his private jet at a Buenos Aires airport. Lazaro Baez, a millionaire businessman who got public works contracts during the Kirchner and Fernandez administrations, is accused of embezzling and laundering about $5 million. When brought before a judge, he refused to testify and remains jailed.
Prosecutors began looking into Baez after a 2013 journalistic investigation named him as Kirchner’s figurehead in an elaborate scheme. The news report said Baez used his companies to launder money for the former presidents.
Argentines are accustomed to corruption scandals that grab headlines before becoming lost in slow-moving investigations. But even in a country that ranked 107 out of 167 on Transparency International’s annual corruption index last year, many Argentines were shocked by recent images on local TV that showed one of Baez’s sons and others counting wads of cash at a company under investigation.
Prosecutors have said they are looking into the financial transactions at several top hotels owned by the Kirchner family in the southern province of Santa Cruz, where Fernandez has been living since she stepped down from office. Local news reports say the hotels are usually empty, raising questions about how they generate the income they report.
Fernandez remains popular with many Argentines. She traveled on Monday to Buenos Aires ahead of testimony she was ordered to give on Wednesday. Fernandez is suspected of being part of a scheme to keep the Argentine peso inflated by selling derivatives below market value. The sales led to a sharp drop in central bank reserves.
Her supporters say that the courts should instead focus on other former presidents and even Argentina’s current leader.
“In this country we have corruption cases that go back all the way to the 1990s,” said Roberto Bacman, a political analyst and director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, a South American research firm. “It’s strange that justice is rushing things just now.”
Former President Carlos Menem’s status as a lawmaker has protected him from imprisonment, including a 4 ½-year sentence for embezzlement and a 7-year sentence for weapons smuggling. Earlier this year, he declined to testify in a case in which he is accused of derailing the investigation into Argentina’s worst terrorist attack.
Macri, who campaigned on promises to root out corruption, has recently drawn attention for his role in two offshore companies, including one that emerged in the recent “Panama Papers” leak. He said last week that he will set up a blind trust to make his finances transparent, and he has been careful in comments about Fernandez.
When asked about Fernandez during an interview with The Associated Press last month, Macri noted she had not been charged with anything. But he said he would not stand in the way of any investigation.
Hugo Ron, who owns a newspaper stand in downtown Buenos Aires, doesn’t think much of any of them.
“It seems like everything is dirty,” he said. “There are no clean politicians.”
Associated Press writer Debora Rey and AP video journalist Leonardo La Valle contributed to this report.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao