Picture credit: FSF/LatinContent via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Trump’s Argentinian cousin?

Lessons from the Kirchners

So, Donald Trump is working overtime on how best to avoid justice and return to power. What to do? Perhaps he need look no further than crisis-ridden Argentina for a strategy.

Just as Trump faces new investigations, over everything from espionage with classified intelligence documents to his byzantine tax affairs, so his likeness in Argentina — also a former president — squares off with a prosecutor who has just demanded that she face twelve years in prison and that she be banned from government for life.

Yes, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina from 2007-2015, now Vice President of Argentina and the person who really runs the country, has been charged with corruption on a massive scale. In the latest charge sheet the prosecutor has detailed alleged misuse of a billion dollars of state funds — just one of multiple cases in court against her. She denies all charges.

What is so striking, watching the drama unfold on the other side of the world, is that Trump’s denials and counter-offensives look eerily reminiscent of the strategy employed by Ms Fernandez and her supporters. Indeed, the Donald may have learned a lesson or three from the campaign she has waged — not just a campaign to keep herself and her children out of prison, but to use power to re-work the judiciary to her liking, in the service of her survival. Donald, are you listening?

For years, tales have abounded of Cristina using power to enrich herself and others, in keeping with the actions of her late husband Nestor, President of Argentina between 2003 and 2007, and someone known to have sought cash while in power — not bank transfers or cheques “because then they can hound you with paper trails once you leave office.” A plain-speaking leader, so they said.

Come his wife’s years at the helm, the money chain became even more evident. One of her assistants was caught red-handed throwing bags containing eight million dollars (or was it nine?) over the wall of a convent outside Buenos Aires. Then there was the driver who detailed how angry she was when he delivered just two million, in cash, not the four million expected.

The newest charges detail how a close friend and business partner allegedly took hundreds of millions of dollars of government money for road works in the Kirchners’ remote home province of Santa Cruz, overbilling by huge margins. He was always paid in record time, but often never finished the job. Implausible numbers of his workers, meanwhile, were allegedly booked into hotels owned by the Kirchner family — again paid for by the state.

No matter. If Trump has Republicans denouncing his “political persecution” that has nothing on the followers of Fernandez de Kirchner. She and her team created the term Lawfare — they spell it in English with a capital L — and have mobilised the government to go fight for the cause.

Even as the prosecutor was outlining the newest charges, the Chief of Staff to the current President, Alberto Fernandez (no relation, but her hand-picked heir who does her bidding), took to the airwaves. Think Republican leaders in Washington DC doing likewise for Trump. Argentina’s Chef de Cabinet lambasted “this latest political persecution, a grave precedent for our democracy.” 

But that was tame compared to one government minister who tweeted: “Don’t mess with Cristina.” Bear in mind that during her time as president a prosecutor who accused her of a clandestine deal with Iran was found dead at home just before he was due to go public with his accusations.

Then consider how the state itself has entered her fight — the Secretary for Human Rights, no less, issuing official denunciations of the state’s own judiciary. “The political persecution of our Vice President is an open display of Lawfare, alive in our country as never before,” according to a bulletin that was turned into the main story on state-run TV channels and radio stations. “This is clear violation of her human rights, and a violation of the will of the people.”

While the prosecutors, to their credit, insist on doggedly pursuing their evidence through the courts, and show no sign of backing down, Ms Fernandez has other ambitions, especially as she faces defeat in elections next year. She wants wholesale reform of the judiciary, with unfriendly judges fired, or retired early, and new faces on the bench, handpicked from political movements she and her husband built over their years in power. 

“Guilty as sin she may be, but she sure knows how to use power, to keep herself not just out of prison, but as an ongoing political force, above the law,” says one opposition leader. “The word impunity doesn’t even begin to tell the story.” 

So, lessons aplenty for Donald Trump, from the other end of the Americas, as he displays all too clearly how he has the muscle, and the clout, to dominate the Republican Party. To defy the judiciary, whatever the charge sheet. Even to run again for the White House in 2024. 

The message from the “other America,” as Argentina was called in its heyday, a century ago, is that unprincipled use of power makes any such journey possible. We had better believe it — because not even in Argentina has a recent President tried to overturn an election result like Trump. To paraphrase hard-nosed politicians in Buenos Aires: don’t mess with Donald, si?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover