Wednesday, October 23, 2013


My friend John was the first person who ever talked to me about Erich Priebke. An American World War II vet, he surprised me by saying he didn’t know what all the fuss was about. 
SS Captain Erich Priebke
This was back in the mid-‘90s when I’d first moved down to Bariloche in Patagonia, and I was just starting to find out about Priebke from the news reports about Italy’s attempts to extradite him for his role in the massacre that the Nazis had carried out in the Ardeatine Caves in Rome during World War II.
“Well,” I said, “you know, John, he’s a war criminal, a former SS leader, and, if the Italians are right, a mass murderer...”
John chuckled sardonically under his breath—something I’d learned he did when he didn’t believe a word you were saying. He reeled to his feet (we were sitting at his dining room table) and made his way to the kitchen where he kept his gin stashed out of sight of his wife, in a cubbyhole between a cupboard and the woodstove. His wife and mine were out on a walk along the lake and wouldn’t be back for a while so he wasn’t being as shy as usual about his gin. (Cheap white wine was what he favored throughout the day as his ostensible “sole drink of choice,” but the gin was what he used to keep his buzz going from morning to night). He deftly snatched the liter bottle of Gordon’s from its hiding place, poured a water glass half-full and, standing right there by the stove, he drank it down thirstily like water.
“Want another beer?” he asked, clearing his throat, his diction, as always, incredibly unslurred.
“No, I’m good for now,” I said, holding up my half-full can.
“Suit yourself,” he shrugged, adding, “Just grab one out of the fridge when you need it,” and then he meandered back to the table, sat down and poured his water tumbler full of chilled wine from a pitcher that sat on the table between us. The wine he sipped as he thought about where to go next with the conversation. That was the way conversations went with John—no rush, nice and easy. Originally from New Jersey, he hadn’t been in a hurry since 1968, when he’d negotiated a golden handshake from his executive post in Buenos Aires with the Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals firm and moved to the 200 acres of mountainside he’d bought here in Patagonia with a business partner. Back then, they’d bought it for a song from the widow of the former owner, because it was out in the wilderness where nobody wanted to live. He still owned 25 acres of it despite having lived ever since on the profits he’d made from selling off his half a couple of acres at a time, once there was electricity and a better road to get here, and the area started becoming attractive to people with a little money who wanted to get away from it all.
After a moment he chuckled quietly again, but his piercing blue, bloodshot eyes remained serious, unwavering. “Erich’s no murderer. He’s one of the nicest, most respectable guys you’d ever want to meet. I remember him from when he had his deli and butcher shop in town. Everybody liked him. And he’s been a pillar of the community, head of the German school and all that.”
“Just your everyday, good-guy storm trooper, huh?” I goaded.
“Oh hell, Dan,” he said, “he’s no more a storm trooper than I am.”
“Not strictly true, John,” I said.
“And he wasn’t any kind of Nazi leader like they’re trying to make him out to be,” he went on, ignoring and immediately forgiving my sarcasm. “He was a pipsqueak captain, an administrative one at that. He was a nobody. Whatever he did, he was just doing what he was told to do.”
“That argument hasn’t flown since the Nuremberg Trials,” I said. “And it doesn’t fly in the American Army either. I was a soldier like you. I know that you’re only obliged to follow all lawful orders. Somebody tells me to shoot a hog-tied civilian in the back of the head, that’s not an order, it’s a moral choice and I have to make it. I can opt to refuse.”
Again, the low, bitter chuckle, almost under his breath. “That’s pretty naïve of you, Dan. I mean for a former big-city newsman, at least. One thing’s the theory in the rule book. Another’s being at war.” His voice quavered when he said, “I did some things I’m not very proud of when I was following Patton’s ass through Europe, and I imagine your dad did too.”
“He never talks about it,” I said.
“With good reason, I’m sure,” he responded.
“So you were with Patton?”
“Sort I say, behind him, kind of.”
“I guess everybody was sort of behind Patton,” I said. “To hear my dad tell it, Patton breezed through Europe with a convoy of tanks and then bragged about winning the war.”
This time John’s laugh was genuine. “Well, I never saw him out there directing traffic like they had George Scott doing in the movie, at least,” he snorted. He drained his glass and filled it with wine again. He sat there sipping his drink in silence, but I could almost hear him thinking. On his battered old Zenith stereo, Satchmo was singing “Jelly Roll”. There was always jazz on the stereo at John’s house. He’d shuffle back and forth for hours on end between his two loves, white wine and old-time jazz music. Sitting there at the table, the music coming from behind him, in the living room, he cupped his right ear, grinned and said, “I love this tune,” and then, in his scratchy, froggy, tenor voice, he softly sang along for a few bars: “My momma said today...when she went be a goo’ boy, I bring you a toy...’cause I’m Momma’s pride an’ joy...”
Then his face went serious again and he looked me hard in the eyes.
“There was this time, somewhere on the Rhine, I think. We’d been fighting for days. We were exhausted. But by now we were winning. It was toward the end...sometimes house to house. It was ugly. We’d lost some guys. There were guys in our outfit that wanted to burn Germany to the ground. Anyway, one day we took this factory. When we overcame the security, we had our interpreter order everybody in German to come out with their hands up. They didn’t try to run or put up a fight. They came out single file, their hands in the air. All of the sudden this sergeant of ours points his forty-five at this kid at the front—because that’s what he was, just a kid—and shoots him pointblank in the head, right here.” John put his index finger to his left temple. “I was looking right at the kid’s face when he died. It was, like, surprised, his eyes, his expression when his brains flew out the other side of his head, and then he was dead.” John was seeing it, right now, I knew, as if he were there. Tears welled up in his eyes and one spilled over and ran down his cheek. He didn’t bother to wipe it away, maybe didn’t even notice it. It dripped from his chin. He went on: “I yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing? They’re giving up! What the hell’s wrong with you?’ But he just laughed and said, ‘These dumb-assed krauts deserve to die...’”
John rubbed his eyes, shook his head, as if trying to shake the image of that day, perhaps of what followed as well. “Even now,” he said, “I see that boy’s face, and so many other boys’ faces, every night before I fall asleep.” Now he looked at me intensely. “And I’m sure Erich sees the people he killed too, Dan...and the ones he didn’t. He’s a good man. I know him well. War’s hell, Dan. That’s not a metaphor. It’s a fact. You think a mere captain had any real choice in the Nazi army? He had to take part in that massacre or be killed himself for refusing a direct order from Hitler.”
“He had a moral choice, though, John,” I insisted. “He could have chosen death over such a heinous crime.”
John chuckled low and insincerely. “Nobody chooses death in war, Dan. Your only thought is surviving till the end.”
* * *

On the mountain road that leads to my house, 20 clicks from Bariloche, where Erich Priebke not only lived under his own name for half a century following World War II but was also a well-known and highly respected businessman and community leader, there’s a sheet metal plate bearing his name on the post of an electrical transformer. There are actually two transformers on that road. The other one bears the name of another pioneer neighbor and architect, Raúl Bozzarelli. It was the practice of the local electrical cooperative, way back when, to identify the transformers for new areas of service by the surname of the first settler to request it, mainly because in order to have electricity, whoever arrived first had to pay for the installation of the transformer. Accordingly, if the lines are down and you call in for a maintenance crew to be sent out, even today, what the co-op will want to know is if your sector is Bozzarelli or Priebke.
Even today, what the electrical co-op will want to know
is if your sector is Bozzarelli or Priebke.

Although Priebke had a home in town from the late 1940s on, at some point he had also bought about 15 acres of mountainous woodland fronting on the beautiful, glacial Lake Moreno and built himself a fine country home there. After Priebke’s extradition in the ‘90s to Italy for trial on charges of crimes against humanity, a neighbor or two tried to stir up a movement to get Priebke’s name removed from “our” transformer. But in the end, there was no real interest: Besides us, who’d see it, out here in the middle of nowhere? And even if they did, who’d care? Furthermore, the name on that transformer was the surname only and Erich Priebke’s family were still the owners of that land. A moot protest, then. So the sign still says “Priebke” on it, a reminder of the past when Don Erich was thought of as a respected neighbor, not a murderer, and when his family were well known and well liked members of the community, not descendants of a Hitlerian monster.
That piece of land, where the Priebkes’ country home is, shares a property line with 70 acres of forest for which I’m the caretaker. So I used to run into Priebke’s granddaughter walking her dogs on the high road, or driving her little VW Saveiro pickup into town for supplies when she lived there for a time before moving, I’m told, to the United States. Sometimes too, one of his two sons and I would wave hello to each other when he’d come out for a visit to the place. But since Erich Priebke’s conviction in Italy, the only one I see from time to time, caretaker to caretaker, is Don Pedro, the Priebkes’ foreman, who still lives on the spread and is in charge of protecting it for the family.
“The señor hasn’t been out here for several years now,” he said, his voice and face forlorn, when I met up with him while we were both on our rounds one day earlier this year.
“Well, he’s under arrest in Italy, after all, and he’s nearly a hundred years old!” I said.
“No, no,” said Pedro, “I mean his son and his family, the one who still lives here.  It’s very sad. It has all been very terrible for the family.”
So now it’s mostly just Don Pedro...and the Rottweilers that help him keep the poachers away—a case of the past catching up to the present and completely changing the perception of reality.
* * *
Journalist, writer and former National Parks Ranger Abel Basti has been researching the lives of former Nazis in Argentina—and particularly in Bariloche—for the past 20 years now. His research for Hitler in Argentina and the book itself have gained him a reputation as a crackpot among detractors and as a knowledgeable authority among those who have long believed, like him, in cloak and dagger collusion and trade-offs between the post-war US intelligence community and the former Reich that permitted some top Nazis, including—if Basti is to be believed—the Führer himself, to slip through the cracks and live out their days in southern Argentina and Chile.
Basti was sitting in Priebke’s living room interviewing him the day Argentine Federal Police officers arrived at the door carrying a Interpol order with them for the arrest of the then-octogenarian former SS captain. What would ensue was a very long process of extradition demands from Italy and Germany and appeals by Priebke’s attorneys that had the effect of delaying the inevitable for long months. But eventually, all of these tactics failed and the Argentine government, then under President Carlos Saúl Menem, eventually cleared the way for Priebke’s extradition and trial.
Shortly after Priebke’s extradition, going about his duties as a local reporter and correspondent, Basti would be surprised one morning to see a tour bus full of foreign visitors stopped in front of Erich Priebke’s home and hear the tour guide telling the travelers that this was the home of the infamous Nazi leader, Erich Priebke. Basti found this hilarious and immediately started toying with the idea of a satirical work, a sort of travel guide to Nazi points of interest in South America’s best known ski resort—and one of its best known havens for ex-Nazi exiles.
Joking about it with me when we met on the street in town one morning, he asked, half in jest, what I thought of a “Nazi Bariloche” travel guide. Without batting an eye, I said I thought it would sell like hotcakes. A few weeks later, Basti called to say he’d written it and asked if I’d read it, and, if I liked it, write the back cover. The book, with my comments on the back cover, is now in its seventh printing, according to Amazon.
The controversial cover bears an image of the famed Bariloche Civic Center but instead of the equestrian statue of General Julio A. Roca—revered by nationalists as the founder of modern Argentina and reviled by liberals and left-wingers as the author of a veritable genocide waged against the native population—an image of Hitler, in full uniform, right arm raised in a Nazi salute and standing on a pedestal has been photoshopped in.
Shortly after it first came out, a close friend of mine in the tiny local Jewish community told me that Bariloche Jews were furious about it. Why, I wanted to know? Shouldn’t they delight to anything that brought the Nazis to light and smoked them out of their hiding places?
That wasn’t how they viewed it, he told me. Things like this just stirred up the whole thing again and bred enmity. For instance, one of the places that Basti had marked as a Nazi site in his book was precisely where a Jewish couple had rented space for their business. Bariloche was a quiet town. Nobody wanted any trouble.
But Basti’s main business was (and is) finding old Nazis—in recent years his works and documentaries have been published in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, though the United States continues to ignore his claims—and in a town that was a frontier outpost less than half a century old when the war ended and did much of its developing with a post-war wave of immigration, when popular dictator Juan Domingo Perón, a military man of well-known Fascist sympathies, opened the country’s doors to fugitive former members of the Reich—Bariloche is a treasure trove for such an investigator.  Basti’s book, Bariloche Nazi, documents his claims with maps, photos, papers and drawings, so that, although it started out as a joke, it eventually became a serious work that some foreign tourists arrive carrying in their knapsacks or under their arms. But the book’s crown jewel is almost as inaccessible now as then: Incalco Ranch located on Lake Nahuel Huapi, on the opposite shore from Bariloche, the place where Basti claims Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun lived an idyllic existence after the war. It is an exclusive residence that, back then, was accessible only by boat or hydroplane, and it belonged to none other than Argentine businessman Jorge Antonio, one of Perón’s most trusted friends.
* * *

Born in Berlin in 1913, Erich Priebke died earlier this month (October 11), at the age of one hundred. He had been under house arrest (because of his extremely advanced age) in Rome since his conviction in 1996 for his part in the Ardeatine Caves Massacre.
Priebke naïvely thought he could tell his story.
The facts are historically simple if morally complex.  Priebke was a 31-year-old captain in the SS police force, stationed in Rome under the orders of German Commander Herbert Kappler. It was in the latter part of the war, in March of 1944, that Italian Resistance fighters attached to the Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (GAP) attacked a column of SS Military Police troops marching along Rome’s Via Rasella, killing 33 German soldiers by first setting off a bomb near the detachment and then attacking the group with small arms fire and hand grenades.
Although never documented, Commander Kappler is alleged to have received direct orders from the Führer himself to execute ten imprisoned Italian anti-Nazis for every soldier to die as a result of the attack. It was Kappler who compiled the list of 330 people whom the Reich condemned to die in the Ardeatine Caves.

Major Karl Haas (who was an SS Intelligence officer with a well-established reputation for ruthlessness that included sending hundreds of Jews from the region to Auschwitz) and Captain Priebke were placed in charge of rounding the prisoners up. Priebke was specifically charged with checking the list. And although the Italian courts that tried him, in principle, tended to agree that he had been a staff-grade officer following orders, his responsibility for the list and his own participation were what eventually condemned him. During the trial it was established that while the order was to kill ten Italian Partisans for each of the 33 German soldiers killed in the Resistance raid, the number of people killed in the Ardeatine Caves was 335, not 330—with five people not on Kappler’s list having been added by mistake. Furthermore, Priebke admitted to having executed two of the prisoners himself, as did Haas.

Entrance to the Ardeatine Caves in Rome Photo originally posted at
Both Priebke and Haas were captured by the Allies following the war. Interestingly enough, however, while Priebke was held in a British prison camp to be bound over for a war crimes trial for his part in the Ardeatine slayings, Haas went from being a POW to allegedly going to work for US intelligence as a spy against the Soviet Union. Priebke ultimately escaped from the prison camp and, after some time in hiding, in South Tyrol, eventually received help from Bishop Alois Hudal at the Vatican, who reportedly aided him in obtaining false documentation and finding a new home in Argentina. There he would live under his own name for half a century until the team of TV reporter Sam Donaldson of the ABC network in the United States stumbled onto a less than successful clearance table book in which Priebke was described as one of the architects of the Ardeatine Massacre and decided to follow up on the lead, which took them to Bariloche.
Largely unrepentant and always believing that he had only acted on orders and that the people executed at the Ardeatine Caves were, at the time, “terrorists”, Priebke naïvely felt that enough time had passed that he could talk about the incident and gave Donaldson an interview. Once aired on US television, the interview sparked outrage in Italy and the backlash led to Priebke’s arrest and extradition. Curiously enough, former Major Haas was called as a mere witness for Priebke’s trial. But as a result of his testimony, he eventually also ended up being charged and tried, and died under house arrest in a rest home near Rome at age 92.
* * *

There can be little doubt that Erich Priebke, not a boy but a mature man of 31 at the time of the war, was a thoroughly committed SS officer and he played a key role in the organization of one of the most heinous Nazi war crimes of World War II. Nor can there be any doubt that, in trying him for his part in the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, Italy was doing long-delayed justice for a terrible atrocity.

But where justice would appear to have turned to vengeance was when Priebke died this month. The Vatican (perhaps as damage control for the role of one of its own number in Priebke’s escape and exile) reportedly issued an unprecedented ban on his funeral’s being held anywhere in Rome. Priebke’s own native city also refused his body, fearing his tomb might become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. In the end, his funeral was eventually arranged—not without violent protests—by a Catholic splinter, the Society of Saint Pius X—a group alleged to have Fascist and anti-Semitic sympathies. Their plan was to inter the former Nazi in the Italian city of Albano Laziale. Since protesters kept the body from being buried there, it was eventually decided that Priebke's remains would be laid to rest in an undisclosed location.
But the cruelest cut of all, I feel, was Argentina’s refusal to repatriate Erich Priebke’s body. His last wish had been to be laid to rest next to his wife in the country that he had called home for half a century after the war. Despite the fact that the founder of the current ruling party, General Juan Domingo Perón, was clearly the key to the immigration of fleeing former Nazis in the post-war years, and although the Peronist government of Carlos Menem that preceded the current Peronist-led administration upheld the concept of “due obedience” that kept members of Argentina’s former military regime from being tried for human rights violations and murder until the current Peronist administration overturned that amnesty, the administration of Cristina Kirchner felt perfectly justified in turning down the Priebke family’s request that they be permitted to bring his remains home. Considering that congressional elections (where ruling FPV candidates aren’t expected to do well) are to be held in this country next Sunday, and that the current administration has blatantly used its early human rights stand to cover up abuses of power of every color ever since, not accepting the return of Priebke’s body seemed hypocritical at best and like political grandstanding at worst. What part could his family possibly have had, I asked myself, in the cruel and misguided decisions and choices that a young army officer made nearly 70 years ago? Didn’t the sentence against Priebke end with his death and shouldn’t his family have the right to mourn and bury him?
I was immediately reminded of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, Hojarasca (Leaf Storm), in which a fallen physician’s perceived sins against the town where he once practiced lead him to live the life of a recluse, locked away in his home, and to eventually commit suicide. But even then, the townspeople refuse to forget his misdeeds, and ban anyone from burying him. So great is their hatred that they say there will be no burial for the man “until they can smell his corpse rotting in his house from the other side of the street.”
In the story that García Márquez tells, the moral conundrum has to do, precisely, with when “enough is enough”, when blind justice turns to blind vengeance, and when the actions of a “just” society turn nearly as hateful as the sentiments behind the crimes they condemn.
To my mind those are questions that emerged this month too from the refusal of the countries of his birth and choice to afford Erich Priebke a proper Christian burial in the presence of his family, no matter what crimes he was convicted of and sentenced for in life. And perhaps another question that this begs is how much more we know of compassion in dealing with his family and his death than Priebke himself did in making at least one major decision of his life.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Voltaire, as quoted by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in "The Friends of Voltaire" (1906, pub. S. G. Tallentyre)
Note: All of the journalists pictured here are staunch critics of the non-democratic tactics of the current Argentine government. Only by defending their right to dissent, no matter what our own political or philosophical positions might be, can we defend and protect our own democratic, civil and human rights.   
As I reflected on the subject of this editorial essay, researching and poring over the events of the past several weeks, I reached the conclusion that perhaps the most succinct truth at which one could arrive is that the time for fearing that Argentina might be headed for the de facto establishment of a “popular” dictatorship may be over. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, in recent weeks we have witnessed clear signs of the impending demise of democracy in the thirtieth anniversary year of its reestablishment by the hand of President Raúl Alfonsín, the first and, arguably, last genuine democrat to lead Argentina following more than seven years of murderous military rule from the mid-seventies through the early eighties.
Jorge Lanata, shocking revelations.
Clearly, democracy was undermined with the Constitutional Reform introduced by the government of Peronist Carlos Menem, which, despite any beneficial amendments introduced, was all about the illegitimate re-election of the former president, a move that allowed him to remain in power for a full decade—ten years steeped in corruption and marked by scandal, and by botched and fixed privatizations and sellouts that cost the country dearly. And it is clear too that a politically manipulated popular coup that toppled his successor—Radical Party leader and former Buenos Aires Mayor Fernando de la Rúa—further undermined democracy by demonstrating that even a leader from a normally ultra-democratic Radical Party was capable of confiscating the private property (and life savings) of the country’s population, that  certain sectors of Peronism weren’t above exploiting and encouraging chaos and insurrection in order to keep any other legitimately elected party from remaining in office and that the vast majority of Argentines were still willing to stand by and do nothing when violence and de facto tactics were employed to wrest power from the hands of a legally elected administration.
Democracy also trembled and quaked to its foundations in the chaotic game of musical chairs that followed the De la Rúa government’s fall. Since in the midst of the political and financial crisis with which the Radical administration was faced Vice President Carlos “Chacho” Alvarez had resigned before the final break-up, once ousted, De la Rúa was first repla
Nelson Castro, criticism with class.
ced by Senate President and opposition Peronist politician Ramón Puerta, on December 20, 2001. Just three days later, in circumstances that were less than clear to the public at large, San Luis Governor and Peronist politician Adolfo Rodríguez Saá was appointed by Congress to replace Puerta. But that ill-fated presidency only lasted a week, with Rodríguez Saá citing “lack of political support” for his resignation, which he tendered on December 30. Puerta was asked to step in temporarily once again, but this time refused. So, Rodríguez Saá was ultimately replaced by Lower House President (and Peronist politician) Eduardo Camaño, who convened a special session of Congress to elect a new president. It was thus that, on January 2, 2002, the presidential sash was placed over the shoulder of Peronist leader and former Buenos Aires Governor Eduardo Duhalde—the self-same Peronist candidate who had lost the presidential elections to De la Rúa in 1999.
Duhalde served out the rest of what should have been De la Rúa’s term—a little over fifteen months—and called early elections in September of 2003. He himself was not in the running but remained a heavyweight figure in the Peronist Party and his backing was bound to give a major boost to whomever he chose as his favorite to win the elections. Well-known and popular former race-driver and long-time Santa Fe Governor Carlos Reutemann was Duhalde’s first choice, but turned his Peronist colleague down. In the midst of a still confusing and hostile political climate following the 2001 political debacle, Duhalde was looking for someone either highly popular or largely unknown as his heir. After Reutemann said no, his choice fell to Néstor Kirchner, whose less than savory reputation was a matter of record in the deep Patagonian south, but who, as the obscure governor of the sparsely-populated Santa Cruz Province was a political unknown in much of the rest of the country. 
Luis Majul, tireless investigator of the man he
called "The Owner"
Of the five candidates—in addition to Kirchner, former President Carlos Menem, economist Ricardo López Murphy, former President-for-a-week Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, and anti-corruption crusader and Congresswoman Elisa Carrió—Kirchner came in second to Menem with a scant 22 percent of the vote compared with Menem’s 24 percent. Neither of the leading candidates had enough votes to win without second-round voting, but fearing defeat in the run-off, Menem dropped out of the race, thus permitting Kirchner to win by default and by the skin of his teeth, as perhaps the least voted-for president in the country’s history. And so began what has become known as the Kirchner era.
While Néstor Kirchner sought, in his four-year term, to give at least the impression of serious government, maintaining renowned and internationally respected technocrats like Roberto Lavagna and Martín Redrado in key economic cabinet positions, and tending to respect their advice, international experience and authority, as well as winning liberal praise at home and abroad by rescinding laws introduced by Alfonsín and Menem to protect all but the highest ranking officers of the military dictatorship from prosecution,  it has since become fairly clear that his ulterior motive was to create a political empire in which he and his wife and current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would attempt to pass the administration back and forth between them indefinitely, with the help of populist measures, an acquiescent opposition and an increasingly loyal following within the Peronist movement. It has also become fairly clear, through detailed investigations carried out by journalist Jorge Lanata and other reporters, that the Kirchners have sought to reconstruct the same corrupt boss-rule model of government on a national scale that made them all-powerful and untouchable in Santa Cruz Province. Lanata’s meticulous probe has shown just how deep-reaching this kind of corruption has been and the huge price the country’s citizens have paid—among other things, in vastly overpriced public works and the kickbacks that they have engendered, in currency-by-the-bale spirited out of the country in money laundering operations, in expropriation scams and fixed public tenders, in juggled statistics and outright prevarication to try and belie the economic devastation that such practices have wreaked, etc.
Far from reining the government in and forcing it to conform to the dictates of democratic government and the rule of law, revelations of corruption in high places and ever more vocal criticism in the press and through massive anti-government demonstrations seem only to have emboldened President Cristina Kirchner, her zealously accommodating ministers and secretaries and members of the quasi-fascist-model youth movement called “La Cámpora”—led by the Kirchners’ son, Máximo—whose members the President is reported to refer to as “my little soldiers” and which has infiltrated every level of government bureaucracy. It is as if, faced with the revelations of corruption and abuse of power demonstrated by some of the country’s top reporters, Mrs. Kirchner and her cohorts have been somehow liberated, and are bent on demonstrating that they have no sense of shame whatsoever.
Alfredo Leuco, blunt critical analysis
On the contrary, it would appear that, now that the jig is up, in terms of the scandalous revelations of private investigations that have emerged in recent weeks, the Kirchner government as a whole and President Kirchner in particular, are set on showing just how autocratic and uncompromising they can be. Nor is this surprising, since the President and her circle are born of a bastardized political philosophy that emerges from a volatile mix of the callous disregard for democratic principles often demonstrated by her party’s founder, General Juan Domingo Perón, and the terrorist gang philosophy of the 1970s neo-fascist Montoneros guerrilla organization—to which Cristina Kirchner has claimed to have belonged, despite this claim’s having proven more wishful thinking and fantasy than fact.
Joaquín Morales Solás, meticulous editorial logic.
In regard to this last, more “Monto-never” than Montonera, back in those days, Cristina and her husband are widely and convincingly reported to have already been busy building their power base and fortune as intermediaries in foreclosure operations handled through their Santa Cruz law offices, in connection with the now infamous Central Bank Circular 1050. This measure was introduced by the military government that overthrew President Isabel Perón in 1976, and pegged mortgage loans to the dollar-peso exchange rate, which, following a sharp peso devaluation in the latter years of the regime, resulted in such soaring increases in loan payments that people all over the country were forced to hand their homes over to key banks and realtors. In other words, far from fighting the military—despite their alleged Peronist Youth membership—it would appear that the Kirchners knew precisely how to make peace with the regime and their consciences, exploit that dark era and use the dictatorship to stunning advantage in accumulating a sound base for their eventually vast fortune.
Perhaps this early bent for “ethical flexibility,” accommodation in benefit of personal gain and hypocrisy for the purposes of political and economic expediency explains a great deal about how a ten-year-long administration that has founded its now waning popularity on relatively meager social handouts and a reputation for being the paladin of Argentine human rights stands accused of some of the worst and most all-pervasive corruption and abuse of power since the fall of the former ‘Proceso’ dictatorship. The extent of the de facto power that this government has gained was patent this past week in ever stronger rumors of plans by Kirchnerists to stage a hostile takeover of the major multimedia group (Clarín) that is currently partnering with Lanata. And more telling still is Lanata’s apparent fear that the government has so manipulated the law that it could actually get away with such a takeover, thus silencing the principal medium against advancing Kirchnerism and gagging the journalists whose investigations have established proof of corruption and abuse of power at the highest levels. Lanata’s worst fears were clear in a plea he made to his enormous viewing audience at the end of his show, Periodismo para Todos a week ago:  "I want to ask a favor of all of you,” he said. “I want to ask you to do something. If this happens [the silencing of Clarín], if they wipe us out with a signature from one day to the next, do something! Don’t just let it happen. And I’m not asking that you do something for me. I’m asking you to do it for yourselves!
I couldn’t agree more and add a request of my own to anyone who reads this. Don’t just keep accepting corruption and abuse in Argentina as inevitable. Don’t keep considering uncompromising professionals like Lanata (Nelson Castro, Joaquín Morales Solá, Alfredo Leuco, Luis Majul, et al) to be naïve, self-interested, crazy or all three. Don’t keep thinking there’s nothing you can do, that it’ll all go away on its own, or that whatever the government does doesn’t affect you personally (all you have to do is go to the supermarket and witness week to week inflation or try to buy dollars to save a little of your purchasing power from devastation in order to know that’s not true). Remember that the ruling party feels empowered by your apathy, that the traditional opposition is as acquiescent as it is because it doesn’t feel your hot breath on the back of its neck, that new reformist movements don’t emerge to cleanse the political scene because they find no backing among a self-defeating people, that corruption is always eventually found out but that silence is what allows it to continue, that a free press is only possible when a free-thinking people insists upon it, that freedom of expression isn’t a privilege but a right and that demanding it, exercising it and fighting for it is the only way to maintain it, and that without it, there can be no democracy.
Democracy is a state not unlike pregnancy or life itself. It exists or it doesn’t. There is no such thing as “somewhat democratic” and being democratic means playing within certain rules, not bending the law to fit whatever party or ruler happens to be in power, respecting and zealously upholding checks and balances and the three branches of government, honoring and defending the position of the minority even when it is diametrically opposed to your own, and defending freedom of expression and of the press as a means of safeguarding democracy from tyranny. 
Tyranny and censorship are mutually self-sustaining and if enough people do nothing to take part in, protest for and defend by all means necessary the search for truth and justice, then they can only blame themselves for having the autocratic rulers and the power-fawning media that they deserve.     

Monday, April 22, 2013


“Vamos por todo...¡por todo!

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner


Dark humor from a Facebook
site called
Authentic democracy filled the streets of major cities all over Argentina on the evening of Thursday, April 18, while tyranny stalked the halls of the national Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers. The A18 protest was, like its 8N predecessor, a spontaneous civic demonstration organized from computer to computer through the social media and without partisan links. A number of opposition politicians respectfully joined the protesters but from the uncomfortable low-profile position of tolerated guests rather than organizers, since demonstrators have made it abundantly clear ever since the first of three progressively stronger protests less than a year ago that they are as disappointed with the lukewarm opposition as they are furious with the rabidly self-absorbed ruling political movement.
In an outpouring of genuine democratic zeal, millions of people of all political colors poured into the country’s streets—over a million participating protesters in the nation’s capital alone—to reject what their supposed political representatives were ostensibly doing in their name and in the name of “democratization”: seeking to introduce “reforms” that would give an already autocratic Executive Branch even greater discretionary power, to the detriment of the Judiciary, the rule of law, the rights of the individual and those of the “fourth power” (the media and their role as the guardians of free expression in representation of the people). But that wasn’t all—as if that were not enough—that the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets were protesting. They were also decrying encroaching corruption that, in the last decade, has become so shockingly flagrant that it can no longer be hidden from view. In that sense, the revelations aired the previous Sunday night—and that continued last night—by investigative
In Buenos Aires alone, over a million people turned out
for the A18 protest.

broadcast journalist Jorge Lanata proved a major catalyst for the 18A protests and clearly marked a “before and after” in terms of any doubts anyone might have had about links between blatant criminal activities and the powers that be.

If opposition politicians were relegated to a secondary role in the A18 event, however, they were indeed showing greater activism than usual with regard to the “reforms” that a now embattled administration was seeking to ram through its rubber-stamp majority in Congress with the pace and power of an express train. Two days before the mass protest, members of opposition political movements gathered before court buildings in Buenos Aires to protest the government-sponsored judicial “reform” bills, by holding up a sky-blue and white national banner bearing the inscription “Sin justicia, no hay futuro” (without justice, there is no future)—a noble thought and slogan, but not strictly true. Without Justice there could indeed be a future for a despotic government bent on ruling in perpetuity and on protecting its circle of influences—just not for democracy, representative governance or civil rights.
The protesting politicians also certified their opposition by signing a document rejecting what they unequivocally termed as the government’s “attempt to control Justice.” Among the opposition politicians involved in the pre-A18 protests were representatives of the centrist Radical Party and Peronist Opposition Front, the center-left Civic Coalition and the conservative PRO movement. Joining them were also numerous attorneys, former prosecutors, constitutional law experts and other jurists.
The President, for her part, remained true to form and acted as if she had never heard the revelations of crime and corruption within her inner circle that Lanata reported in chilling detail and with documented evidence to back up his claims. The task of defending her ivory tower walls she left to her surrogates in the press, like Mauro Viale and a once serious investigative reporter, Rodolfo Graña, who, of late, has become an unabashed cheerleader for the K regime and a pitbull sent to attack its enemies. In all cases, pro-K mouthpieces limited themselves to hammering the messenger rather than presenting any sound evidence to refute the Lanata team’s impeccable two-year investigation.
One usual spokesman for the Kirchners, however, did break ranks when it came to the Judicial "reform" bills. As head of the Center for Legal Studies (CELS), writer and former Montonero urban guerrilla Horacio Verbitzky, who not only usually follows the government's script but also often writes it, surprised many observers by sharply criticizing the bills for restricting the civil rights and legal recourse of citizens.
Federico Elaskar, former owner of SGI -
a.k.a. "La Rosadita"
Meanwhile, the public got a taste of what the proposed government-sponsored “reforms” will mean to Argentine civil rights when the corroded wheels of justice failed to creak into action on the heels of Lanata’s investigation. Despite the fact that his televised reports provided compelling information linking a Puerto Madero finance firm called SGI—and nicknamed “La Rosadita” due to its geographic proximity and alleged connection with the Casa Rosada (Government House)—and its former owner, Federico Elaskar, to massive money laundering, the first part of the week passed without a single judge’s daring to invoke his/her own authority to order the premises searched. This, despite the fact that neighbors of Madero Center—the building where the company has its office, and where not only Vice President Amado Boudou but also President Kirchner reportedly own property—went onto Facebook and Twitter to report boxes apparently containing documentation being carried from the building. It wasn’t until Thursday, in the very midst of the A18 mass protests, that police descended on the finance firm’s offices, making a great show of the raid, despite the fact that if they’d found anything of relevance to the Lanata investigation, it would have been a miracle, since those implicated in corruption in high places, had been given all week to make sure anything incriminating—more incriminating, that is, than the documentation Lanata had already made public—was long gone.
Two generations: The Kirchners, mother and son, Cristina and Maxi; the
Báezes, father and son, Lázaro and Martín. Close ties.

Perhaps one of the principal virtues of Lanata’s investigation is that it has taken corruption out of the realm of generality and put names and faces with events, as well as specifying the connections between political and economic powers in the Kirchner era. He has introduced us to Santa Cruz strongman Lázaro Báez, who over two decades and on the strength of his relationship with former governor and president Néstor Kirchner—as attested even by Kirchner’s former lieutenant governor, Eduardo Arnold—went from being an obscure provincial bank teller to, first, running the bank, and then, acquiring a bankrupt construction company and turning it into a major State contractor, as well as accruing interests in oil, media, aeronautics and land (some 250,000 hectares, most of which he bought with cash).
Leonardo Fariña, a compulsive talker.
We also met the flamboyant and singularly indiscreet Leonardo Fariña, who distributed vast amounts of cash that the alleged Báez-Kirchner partnership flew out of Santa Cruz in amounts weighty enough to be considered air cargo. We met Federico Elaskar, who admitted to helping Fariña set up as many as 50 offshore phantom companies through which to launder vast sums of money, before being forced out of business by another nefarious face in the chain, that of Daniel Pérez Gadín. And we also met Fabián Rossi, whose business contacts, allegedly gained through his relationship with Argentine Ambassador Jorge Arguindegui in Panama, allowed him to help Báez set up ghost operations in foreign tax havens.
As Lanata was revealing how in a country where foreign exchange regulations are so tight that Argentine tourists aren’t permitted to legally change enough pesos into dollars or euros to take a business trip or brief vacation abroad, friends of the ruling family have been moving foreign currency out of the country by the bale, another story was being told: that of Santa Cruz Province under the 12-year governorship of Néstor Kirchner. A province so remote and sparsely populated that for the vast majority of Argentines it might as well be another country, it would have been a good case study to have analyzed before the election of Kirchner to the presidency in 2003, when he was an unknown politician who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Had observers seen how the Kirchners had their own province sewn up so tight that nothing happened without their say so, it would have been easy to see what was in store for the nation under their power structure model. In fact, many of the key players who have accompanied them in Santa Cruz have remained with them throughout their decade at the head of the national administration. And the President’s latest moves to tie the hands of the Judiciary are simply part of the Santa Cruz model of total control. With 125 seats in the Lower House of Congress belonging to ever faithful rubber-stamp Kirchnerist deputies, the effort to keep this affront to democratic rule from passing has boiled down to bringing as much opposition pressure as possible to bear on just 12 deputies whose past performance has marked them as swing voters. The “reform” bills would give the Executive virtual control over the naming and removal of judges, and, among other things, would also make it virtually immune to any legal recourse that citizens could take against it to protect their rights. Until now the Kirchner government has had to find ad hoc ways of shoving a stick into the wheels of justice, such as allegedly naming temporary judges and prosecutors to replace ones it fears might rule against it. If its bills pass into law, it would be able to handle such manipulation of the Judiciary pretty much as it pleases and within a “legal”—if morally illegitimate—framework.
The 12 mavericks on whom an independent Judiciary depends.

A little over a year ago, on February 27, 2012, at a rally in Rosario commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the first raising of the Argentine flag, Cristina Kirchner stated, in a nutshell, the essence of her government’s plan: “Vamos por todo...¡por todo!” (“We’re going for it all...for all of it!”) she shouted, gesticulating to a clump of her FPV (Frente para la Victoria) political movement gathered in the crowd before the reviewing stand in Argentina’s third largest city. It wasn’t part of her own speech. It was, instead, a sort of battle cry that she issued, without a microphone, in the middle of Socialist Mayor Mónica Fein’s speech, obviously startling the mayor, as the president’s fans drowned Fein out with their shouts of approval for their jefa’s words and gestures. It was a show of power and disrespect. It was Cristina trying to demonstrate to the mayor that she, not Fein, owned the street, that even if Fein was at the mike, the crowd belonged to the Kirchner regime and so did the country—but in ways that clearly have had little to do with democracy or constitutional administration.
As political news commentator Joaquín Morales Solá pointed out this past week, Jorge Lanata’s investigation has brought to the fore what everybody in politics and serious journalism already knew: basically, that Argentina currently reeks of corruption as it never has before—which, after the era of Carlos Menem in the nineties, is saying a mouthful—and that the deeper meaning of “going for it all” carries with it a barely veiled and underlying threat and project of perpetuity in government, the creation of a popular dictatorship capable of protecting the burgeoning Kirchner estate and its friends and partners in power.
Jorge Lanata

As Morales Solá tangentially points out, Lanata’s investigation has been a mere catalyst, a wake-up call, a way of whacking people—including a somnolent opposition—over the head with what, in voluntary blindness, they’ve been tripping over on a daily basis for the past ten years. If most people living in Argentina were honest with themselves, they would have to admit that they have long since seen the signs of advancing tyranny and crippling corruption within the power structures that are seeking to control every aspect of life in this country. But why did it take the unique head-on style of a Jorge Lanata to wake people from their lethargy even as their democracy, their freedom and their well-being are being wrested from their hands? The late Argentine physician and world-renowned heart specialist René Favaloro once said, “After so often seeing incompetence triumph and dishonor prosper, after so often seeing injustice grow, after so often seeing power in the hands of bad people burgeon, Man eventually becomes disheartened with virtue, laughs at honor, and is embarrassed to be honest.” Perhaps the answer to my question lies within this wise man’s simple yet crystal-clear observation.
Some people still cling to the idea that Néstor and Cristina Kirchner’s original plan of passing the presidency back and forth between them ad infinitum died along with the late former president, and they cling as well to the hope that the presidential elections of 2015 will no longer contain a Kirchner as a candidate, since it is—currently at least—unconstitutional for any president to serve three consecutive terms. But astute and highly respected political analyst Nelson Castro said it all when he reminded the country this past week that for Cristina Kirchner and her entourage, “a ‘re-reelection’ is a matter of life and death.” Clearly, without a means of retaining their hold on power and the judicial immunity that goes with it, the President and her entourage would become common (if vastly wealthy) citizens, who could be called upon to answer for all charges and allegations against them.
The latest advances by the President and her rubber stamp majority in the Senate against the necessary checks and balances of any truly democratic society should have left no doubt in anyone’s mind about their intention to “go for all of it” by also controlling the Judiciary and thus sealing their future impunity. And if they manage to get away with it by also carrying the Lower House of Congress, then there should also be no doubt about what their next move will be: a rubber stamp constitutional “reform” aimed at “legalizing” the President’s illegitimate, totalitarian ambitions and perpetuating her administration in power.                

Monday, February 25, 2013


Plaza Once Station (photo by José María Pérez Núñez
CC by SA 2.0 via Wikimedia
Commons: Ciudad Gris/La Estación)
Argentina this past week marked the first anniversary of the Plaza Once Rail Tragedy. I’ve placed this case title in caps because I think it deserves them. And the reader will note that I’ve used the word Tragedy, rather than “accident”, since while there may have been nothing premeditatedly intentional about it, there can be little doubt that what happened in the Plaza Once railway station in Buenos Aires on February 22, 2012, was not the result of an accident, a quirk of fate, a momentary lapse in human concentration or an isolated error in judgment. It would appear ever more clear, rather, that this horrifying train wreck was the outcome of long years of incompetence, negligence, indifference and worse, that inexorably culminated in the deaths of 51 passengers and the injury of more than 700 others. If the Once Rail Tragedy could ever be referred to as an “accident” it could only be within the context of “an accident-waiting-to-happen”.
It is also hard to separate that tragedy from a general attitude of indifference on the part of the current national government with regard to its invested responsibilities as the country’s elected administration and its accountability for the well-being of the country, its economy, its currency, its world image, its infrastructure and, ultimately, its people.  In this sense, the Plaza Once Rail Tragedy might well be seen as a symbol of the chronic and unwarranted deterioration to which Argentina has been subject in the past decade and, particularly, in the last half of that period.
The Tragedy. The wreck took place on a Wednesday morning at about 8:30, on the Sarmiento western commuter line, when the train, operated by concession-holder TBA (Trenes de Buenos Aires), was loaded with some 1200 rush-hour commuters. As the train came into the Once de Septiembre Station (better known simply as Once) on track No. 2, it slowed to a reported 20 kilometers per hour, but was then unable to brake and crashed into shock absorbers at the end of the track beneath the station platform. The impact was such that it sounded to many passengers and passersby like an explosion, and the lead car telescoped into the one behind it. These two cars were even more packed with workers coming into the city from the western suburbs than the rest of the train, since morning commuters tend to favor the cars up front so as to save time by getting off and out of the station quickly, ahead of the rush.
There was an immediate attempt by the firm and the government to blame the gory incident on “human error”, claiming that the commuter train’s driver was at fault. But although this may briefly have led the early investigation off on a tangent, rail workers were quick to come to their companion’s aid and tell the press and anyone else who would listen to them about the deplorable safety conditions under which they were working and the general disrepair of TBA’s rolling stock.
It was the third worst crash in the long history of Argentina’s railways, and it was the very worst in more than three decades.

Although President Cristina Kirchner—in common with Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and Buenos Aires Provincial Governor Daniel Scioli—immediately decreed a 48-hour period of national mourning, and issued a succinct message of condolences to families of the victims, her first reaction to the tragedy was silence. And not merely silence, but reclusion as well. She left the national capital for nearly a week and holed up in her remote southern home province of Santa Cruz, where she hosted a private meeting with her Paraguayan colleague Fernando Lugo, in her luxury boutique hotel, Los Sauces, in Calafate, before traveling to her home in Río Gallegos, where she headed up a birthday homage at the private mausoleum of her late husband and predecessor, former President Néstor Kirchner, who died in October of 2010 and who would have been 60 years old that Saturday. Her absence from Buenos Aires in the face of the train crash attracted particular attention since she had already spent the previous week “resting” in Santa Cruz and returned there almost immediately after the tragedy—not without first meeting briefly with her transport secretary, Juan Pablo Schiavi.
Cristina Kirchner - too little too late.
Too Little Too Late. The president reappeared in public the following week—at a rally to celebrate the first raising of the Argentine flag on February 27, 1812—in the northern city of Rosario, where, on the tail-end of a half-hour speech about the achievements of her and her husband’s administrations, she finally mentioned the Once Rail Tragedy, saying, rather vaguely, that she would “take all measures necessary” in the case. Considering the time she’d had to think about it, her pronouncement seemed meager at best. She also sought to deflect government responsibility by exhorting Argentine justice to complete its technical investigations “within the next 15 days”. (The judicial branch, of course, immediately said that it would take however long was necessary to investigate that case and would accept no pressure to finish up quickly).  Then, in barely lukewarm acceptance of a small quota of accountability, the president admitted that the Argentine rail system needed “to be reformulated” and grudgingly confessed that “if we haven’t done more, it’s because money has been lacking.”
But that wasn’t strictly true.  TBA was a private consortium that took over the Sarmiento and Mitre commuter rail lines in 1995 as part of the decade-long privatization plan introduced by Peronist President Carlos Saúl Menem. At the time some private sources estimated that Argentina’s overall State-run medium and long-distance railways were losing on the order of a million dollars a day. That meant that international investors weren’t exactly tripping over each other to buy them. So consortia ended up being formed by local multi-interest groups and, in certain cases, international technical partners, as in the case of TBA. Still, the local operators—domestically perspicacious and good horse-traders that they were—argued that unless they raised ticket prices beyond what Argentine commuters could pay, it would be impossible to maintain the rail services. So as part of the clearly one-sided contracts that they negotiated, these companies not only were granted exploitation of the lines they dealt for, but also a pledge from the government to continue to pay massive subsidies for upkeep and to defray losses on ticket sales.
In retrospect it's hard not to suspect that subsidies were always what the “privatization” deals were all about, and, as long as we’re being suspicious, that precious little of those subsidies has ever been used for rolling stock and track upkeep. Otherwise, the Once Rail Tragedy never would have uncovered, for instance, just how disastrous the state of repair of some of the major commuter lines is. Furthermore, TBA wasn’t a stand-alone firm, but formed part of the Plaza Group (through its Cometrans holding group), majority-owned by the Cirigliano family of Argentina, and also of UGOFE (Unidad de Gestión Operativa Ferroviaria de Emergencia—or Emergency Rail Operations Management Unit), which also operated other rail services in the Buenos Aires area. TBA was also granted concessions for north-bound long-distance services, in total operating, according to unofficial estimates, about a thousand runs and carrying approximately 500,000 passengers a day.
Pino Solanas: A true swindle.
About a week after the Once Rail Tragedy, public pressure brought Federal intervention of TBA. In May of last year, three months after the disaster, the government revoked TBA’s concessions and placed them under the care of a consortium called UGOMS. But who is UGOMS?
UGOMS stands for Unidad de Gestión Operativa Mitre-Sarmiento (or Mitre-Sarmiento Operational Management Unit). It was formed on the same day that TBA lost its concession last year, and is a “temporary consortium” created especially to take over for TBA. It is made up of rail operators Ferrovías and Metrovías. According to filmmaker, socialist politician and Proyecto Sur Party Congressman Pino Solanas, on this first anniversary of the Once disaster, “the Ciriglianos continue to draw payment from the State—and with exaggerated surcharges—for the repair of train cars on the Sarmiento and Mitre lines, through their company, EMFER S.A, and they continue to operate trains through UGOFE S.A., which operates the San Martín, Roca and Belgrano South lines.” Solanas adds that “the brand new mirror company, UGOMS, which currently operates the Sarmiento and Mitre lines, is run by its partners, Ferrovías (EMEPA Group) and Metrovías (Roggio group).” 
Where Did All the Money Go? As described by Solanas, who is noted for uncovering government corruption, the repair contracts alone have been a succulent source of government subsidy income for the railroad concession-holders. The leftwing politician claims that no government audit has ever been carried out, for instance, to determine the final destination of “thirty-seven workshop-factories, thousands of railway cars, locomotives, machinery, equipment, and 60,000 spare part accounts.” According to Solanas, “the great majority of these assets have disappeared, without anyone’s ever having demanded their replacement.”   This is only part of what the congressman calls “a triangle of corruption” that includes, he alleges, “the Transport Secretariat, the National Commission for Transport Regulation, railway management and companies.” He adds that this apparent complicity is why no one has yet tracked the path of multi-million-dollar subsidies to find out “where all the money went that never reached the trains.”
In 2012 alone, rail lines serving the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area are reported to have received over 4.6 billion pesos in subsidies (or about US$980 million at the official government exchange rate). About 3 billion pesos of that is reported to have gone to UGOFE. Solanas describes both UGOFE and UGOMS as being “invented by the government as holding groups for the TBA, Metrovías and Ferrovías concessions, as a means of covering up a true swindle against the citizenry [since] by contract, UGOFE and UGOMS, are corporations created by the State and managed by private firms, which are compensated for their management services. In other words, they have no civil accountability whatsoever in case of any sort of accidents or labor suits, and as if that were not enough, any fines that might apply to them don’t come out of their pockets, but out of those of the citizens.”
The administration, for its part, has managed to dodge a direct hit in the case of the Once Rail Tragedy by using two successive transport secretaries, Ricardo Jaime and Juan Pablo Schiavi, as scapegoats. It has also tried to blame the situation of ineffectiveness and scandalous corruption surrounding the concession contracts on the 1990s administration of fellow Peronist Carlos Menem, but after a decade of Kirchners at the helm, this complaint clearly seems less than credible, especially coming from a government that overturned the Due Obedience and Full Stop amnesties that protected members of the former military regime of the 1970s and 1980s from trial, and that had no problem deciding to re-nationalize the oil industry and the flag-carrier airline, which had also been privatized under Menem. And this leads one to ask why the railroad concessions are being kept alive—if on life-support—when they have so obviously failed to solve the country’s rail travel problems and are still bleeding the government treasury as always.
Ricardo Jaime

Jaime and Schiavi. Successive charges that have been leveled against former Transport Secretary Jaime would appear to provide an inkling of a response. He came to national office in 2003 when Néstor Kirchner was elected president. He remained in that post under Cristina Kirchner’s administration until 2009, when his name had become so connected with scandal that he was forced to resign. He has had numerous court actions filed against him and has been variously accused of charges ranging from contempt of court to alleged kickbacks and from failing to comply with the duties of a public official, to alleged involvement in a money-laundering cover-up and abuse of office. 
Juan Pablo Schiavi

His connection with the Kirchners went back 20 years, when as city council president for the Santa Cruz oil town of  Caleta Olivia, he joined Néstor Kirchner’s bid to unseat fellow Peronist and provincial political strongman Arturo Puricelli as governor. For his loyalty, Jaime was awarded the post of  cabinet chief for Kirchner’s first governorship, and when Kirchner won a second term, Jaime was appointed to head the Provincial Education Council. When Kirchner reached the presidency in 2003, the transportation slot was waiting for Jaime in the ministerial cabinet of Planning Minister (and first-hour Kirchner loyalist) Julio de Vido.
It was by the hand of de Vido that Juan Pablo Schiavi (55), a man with a somewhat chequered political past, came to the Transportation Secretariat. Of Peronist extraction, Schiavi became involved in politics while still a teen, as a militant in the Peronist Youth movement and with alleged ties as well to the Montoneros urban guerrilla organization.  He didn’t take up his first real political post, however, until, at age 32, he was appointed advisor to the Peronist Bloc in the Buenos Aires City Council. During Peronist politician Carlos Grosso’s brief term as mayor of Buenos Aires (1989-1992) Schiavi served as Undersecretary of Maintenance and Services.
Despite his Peronist background Grosso’s mayorship—like Menem’s presidency— was marked by flourishing relations between the public and private sectors and was to produce some major transformations in the city, not the least of which was the Puerto Madero urban renewal project that turned the old port of Buenos Aires into a luxury residential, tourist and entertainment haven. But it was also a municipal administration that generated wide-spread scandal and accusations of gross corruption surrounding not only the swift privatization processes that Grosso’s policies spawned but also his government’s handling of public funds. These accusations brought a wave of formal complaints and lawsuits, the pressure of which eventually forced Grosso to resign. By the time Grosso had dealt with all of the charges against him, his name was so tarnished that he retired entirely from politics, despite his managing to see most of the cases against him dropped, filed for lack of evidence or thrown out of court.
While Schiavi was in his post in the Grosso government, one of his jobs was to oversee trash collection contracts, which is where he met Mauricio Macri, who, 20 years later, was to become mayor of Buenos Aires and an archenemy of the Kirchners.  Back then, Macri was heading up SOCMA, the business conglomerate founded by his father, Franco Macri, one of whose companies was the trash management firm MANLIBA. Schiavi forged ties with Macri and with SOCMA executive Daniel Chaín, and, with Chaín (later Human Development Minister for the City of Buenos Aires), eventually formed a partnership, working together through the 1990s.  One of that partnership’s projects was the remodeling of some thirty train stations.
Schiavi was to later take part in Macri’s two bids for mayor (the first of which he lost to Aníbal Ibarra), but had a falling-out with Macri over his association with liberal economist Ricardo López Murphy. In the meantime, he returned to government when Ibarra was suspended and impeached because of accusations surrounding an infamous nightclub fire (República Cromagnon) in which 194 people died. When Ibarra’s Vice-Mayor and replacement, Jorge Teleman took over, he asked Schiavi to take up the post of Municipal Planning and Public Works Minister, a job he held from 2006 until the following year, when Macri, with whom he remained estranged, won the mayoral elections. During that year, however, Schiavi had managed to nurture a good relationship with Federal Planning Minister Julio de Vido, who placed him in charge of the Railroad Infrastructure Administration (ADIF), a State company whose job was supposed to be promotion of railway renewal.  But the ADIF obviously met with little success in complying with its express aim.  Be that as it may, when scandal forced Jaime to resign from the Transportation Secretariat post, it was Schiavi who de Vido tapped to take his place.
Planning Minister Julio de Vido
The de Vido Connection. While, as I said earlier, top government officials have done their darnedest to use Jaime and Schiavi as circuit-breakers to keep the Once Rail Tragedy blowback from hitting them smack in the face, it’s pretty hard to miss the fact that they had to have known full well what their subordinates were doing. It would be at least naïve to think that they wouldn’t be keeping a close eye (for their own individual interest if nothing else) on a post  that was the key to activities involving billions in subsidies.
Says Solanas: “For such a swindle, shouldn’t Planning Minister Julio de Vido—who has had the Transport Secretariat under his ministry since 2003, and who had Ricardo Jaime at the head of it for six years—be held accountable? And isn’t the president principally responsible for the administrations of her ministers? Everybody, including Cristina [Kirchner] knew about the reports of the Federal Auditor General, the National Ombusman and the [other] claims lodged,” he says, regarding the deplorable state of the railroads and the safety issues involved. “And yet,” he says, “de Vido was absolved in the case and the party of the concessions, subsidies, swindles and complicities carries on.”
Elisa Carrió: Impeach Cristina.
Meanwhile Civil Coalition Congresswoman Elisa Carrió—another noted crusader against corruption—said this past week that she would be presenting a request for the impeachment of President Cristina Kirchner, based, she added, on the administration’s responsibility in the Once Rail Tragedy. She said that she was also seeking charges against de Vido. Carrió announced the move after a Federal  Court brought more serious charges against Jaime and Schiavi and confirmed pursuit of charges against Sergio and Mario Cirigliano (who head the group that owns TBA). Carrió said that “reading the court’s decision convinces me that the crimes with which Schiavi and Jaime are charged are the same ones that correspond to Julio de Vido and Cristina Kirchner.” The congresswoman opined that it was impossible “for Cristina Kirchner not to have known about the illicit association that her husband led and, in any case, she maintained it during her own mandates, and it is on this that the request for impeachment for misconduct is based, on the calamity of crimes produced around public transport subsidies since the beginning of Néstor Kirchner’s administration.”
The Once Rail Tragedy cannot be taken out of the context of the Kirchner administration’s overall policies and their increasingly pernicious effects.  It is symptomatic of a situation in which Argentina could almost be said to be held hostage by the policies of an administration whose main focus from the outset has been staking and perpetuating its own claim to power at the expense of the rest of the country. The administration’s radical foreign policy that has isolated Argentina from the opportunities that could put it on the road to its rightful place as a genuine regional and world  leader, its disdain for the tenets of the kind of healthy economy it should be enjoying, its thoughtless dilapidation of the country’s foreign reserves, its failure to identify and deal with corruption, its hostility toward any and all sorts of criticism, its aversion to accountability and readiness to lay blame elsewhere, and its failure to recognize the democratic principle of the minority’s right to have its say are all symptoms of a greater and graver illness, one for which the Once Rail Tragedy stands as a public symbol.