Cristina’s Christmas present

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

Well, it’s happened again. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Argentina, Julian Ercolini, ordered a trial of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president of that country from 2007 to 2015, on charges of corruption.

Also ordered to face trial were Julio de Vido, Kirchner’s sometime Minister of Federal Planning, and José Francisco López, former state secretary for public buildings.

According to the indictment, all three former officials are accused of forming an illegal association that was “created to commit crimes” involving the theft of “funds that were assigned to road works” – specifically, 52 projects in Santa Cruz province, where Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, served as governor before preceding her as president.

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Lázaro Báez

Already in court is contractor Lázaro Báez, whose company Austral Construcciones profited from the corruption scheme. Austral, it is reported, received over $4 billion in road-construction contracts from the Kirchner administration; of that amount, about $1 billion is estimated to have constituted illegal surcharges.

Judge Ercolini also froze $893 million in Kirchner’s personal assets.

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Cristina Kirchner with Axel Kiciloff

It’s the second time this has happened since she left office: in May, Kirchner, along with her former Economy Minister Axel Kiciloff and former Central Bank head Alejandro Vanoli, was indicted on charges of making illegal contracts to sell U.S. dollars at below market rates, supposedly with an eye to strengthening the peso. Instead of helping the Argentinian economy, these hijinks are said to have damaged it.

DYN15, BUENOS AIRES 04/09/06, EL SECRETARIO DE OBRAS PUBLICAS, JOSE LOPEZ DURANTE LA 1(TM) SESION PLENARIA DEL XV CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL "LOS LIMITES DE LA RESPONSABILIDAD SOCIAL DE LA EMPRESA", ESTA MA-ANA EN LA FACULTAD DE CIENCIAS ECONOMICAS DE LA UNIVERSIDAD DE BUENOS AIRES (UBA).FOTO:DYN/LUCIANO THIEBERGER.
José Francisco López

Inveterate readers of this site may recall that López, a longtime crony of Nestor Kirchner and “right-hand man” to de Vido, was arrested in June while trying to hide plastic bags full of money at a Buenos Aires convent. In addition to the plastic bags, he had a suitcase full of money, and he had driven these bags and suitcase to the convent in a car whose trunk was also full of money. The total stash: about $7 million dollars in the form of U.S. dollars, euros, yen, and other denominations. He also had a bunch of jewelry and several watches. And was packing a gun.

Apparently, all that dough was just a fraction of the massive sum fleeced from Argentinian taxpayers by by Kirchner, de Vido, López, Báez and company.

Kirchner, who was indicted in May for incompetent administration, was not taken into custody.

Those krazy Kirchner krooks

DYN15, BUENOS AIRES 04/09/06, EL SECRETARIO DE OBRAS PUBLICAS, JOSE LOPEZ DURANTE LA 1(TM) SESION PLENARIA DEL XV CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL "LOS LIMITES DE LA RESPONSABILIDAD SOCIAL DE LA EMPRESA", ESTA MA-ANA EN LA FACULTAD DE CIENCIAS ECONOMICAS DE LA UNIVERSIDAD DE BUENOS AIRES (UBA).FOTO:DYN/LUCIANO THIEBERGER.
José Francisco López

Okay, this one is kind of funny. But first you need to know who José Francisco López is.

Who is he? He’s a civil engineer and a longtime member of the sleazy Kirchner circle in Argentina. In 1991, when Nestor Kirchner became governor of the state of Santa Cruz, he put López on the administrative board of the state’s roads authority. Later he named López to executive positions in other state agencies. When Kirchner was elected president in 2003, he took López with him to Buenos Aires, appointing him to serve as the federal Minister of Public Works. As such, López was the “right-hand man” of the notorious Julio de Vido, the Minister of Federal Planning.

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De Vido, Cristina Kirchner, and López

In this position, which López retained under the presidency of Kirchner’s wife, Cristina, he wielded enormous power, had control of massive amounts of money, and was (along with de Vido) an object of widespread suspicion. Both were accused of a range of corrupt acts, such as pressuring construction firms for bribes and kickbacks and using federally funded construction projects to reward friends or punish enemies. One of de Vido’s and López’s associates, Ricardo Jaime, was eventually arrested, tried, and imprisoned for stealing evidence.

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Wads of cash in the trunk of López’s car

Which brings us to what happened this past June 14. On that day, in a district of Buenos Aires known as General Rodriguez, López was arrested while in possession of approximately $7 million dollars in cash in a range of denominations, including U.S. dollars, euros, and yen. The money was distributed among six large plastic bags, a suitcase, and the trunk of López’s car. In addition, López had on him an unidentified amount of jewelry, a receipt from a Beijing bank, and several high-end watches, including Rolexes and Omegas.

Oh, and he was packing a gun.

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After his arrest, López was fitted out with a helmet and bulletproof vest for his protection

There’s more. According to reports, López tried to hide the bags of money at a convent called Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima; it was, in fact, the resident nuns who fingered him, phoning the cops and reporting that (no kidding) some man was throwing plastic bags over their convent wall. When officers arrived at the scene, the ever-intrepid López tried to hide in the convent, where he endeavored in vain to persuade the nuns, who were obviously no fools, that he’d brought all that dough to donate it to them and that the police were trying to steal it.

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A still from The Sound of Music. Just in case you don’t know what a nun looks like.

It was unclear from news reports whether López also claimed to have intended to give the nuns the jewelry and watches.

In any event, the nuns didn’t buy it. When the cops turned up, López offered them bribes. That didn’t work, either.

Anyway, so it goes in Argentina in these immediate post-Kirchner days. Another day, another name added to the long roster of Kirchner functionaries being investigated for money-laundering –Néstor and Cristina’s favorite indoor sport.

The callow Kirchnerite: Ben Norton

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Ben Norton

This week we’ve been perusing the writings of highly prolific Salon contributor Ben Norton, who in a career that is now barely three years old has established himself as a leading American champion of Islam and hard-core socialism and a major detractor of the U.S., Israel, and “neoliberalism.”

Before we say goodbye to Norton, let’s take a quick look at another frequent topic of his work – namely Latin America. Unsurprisingly, he’s heaped praise on socialist leaders – such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina – who’ve damaged economies, arrested opponents, and suppressed civil liberties (after all, their hearts are in the right place!), while predictably demonizing “neoliberal” leaders who’ve brought their countries freedom and prosperity. Citing such far-left sources as Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald, Norton has referred to the impeachment of Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, as a “right-wing coup.” In May, he attacked New York Times editorial-board member Ernesto Londoño, who in a recent article had done two things of which Norton disapproved.

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Glenn Greenwald

What two things? First, Londoño had committed the unpardonable act of “bashing Venezuela’s elected leader.” In fact, what Londoño had done was simply to criticize the human-rights violations committed by the government of President Maduro – who, as Londoño truthfully noted, had become “a petty dictator.” Second, Londoño had praised the man Norton referred to as “Argentina’s new right-wing [read: non-socialist] President Mauricio Macri,” whom Norton criticized for having “capitulated to vulture funds” and for “forcing through brutal neoliberal cuts.” In reality, Londoño, in commenting about Marci, had merely noted with obvious admiration Macri’s longstanding criticism of chavista human-rights abuses.

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Ernesto Londoño

What about those “vulture funds” – the Kirchner crowd’s disparaging term for the U.S. hedge funds to which Argentina owned billions of dollars, but that Cristina Kirchner refused to pay a single peso, preferring instead to vilify her creditors and let her country default on its sovereign debt for the second time in fourteen years? Londoño hadn’t said a word about those funds; but Norton apparently couldn’t forgive Macri for having decided to pay his country’s debts and move beyond Cristina’s disastrous default. As for those “brutal neoliberal cuts”? Londoño hadn’t mentioned them, either. Of course, to Norton, neoliberalism is a dirty word, and budget cuts are by definition brutal. But the plain fact is that Macri – who appears to understand economics a good deal better than Norton does (and better, for that matter, than Chávez or Maduro or Kirchner or Rousseff) – is simply trying to keep Argentina from heading down the same road that has led Venezuela to utter economic ruin.

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Mauricio Macri

But what does Ben Norton know or care about such realities and responsibilities? Or about the long-term impact of capitalist vs. socialist economics on the everyday lives of ordinary people? Or, again, about the reality of day-to-day life in free, democratic societies vs. day-to-day life under putatively progressive autocrats or Islamic totalitarians? Again and again, he has shown that the lessons of the twentieth century are lost on him. He seems to bang away at his articles in a child’s little corner of world, sheltered from the ugly, distant realities of theocracy and despotism and clueless about how fortunate he is to be living in a free, prosperous country that he’s been taught to regard as the planet’s chief purveyor of evil. In every word that he writes, in short, Ben Norton comes across as an utter naif – which is to say that he is every bit as callow about the way the great world operates as he appears to be in his photographs.

Weisbrot’s friends

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Mark Weisbrot

We’ve devoted this week to Mark Weisbrot, who for years has served as an economic advisor to and ardent defender of the most notorious, incompetent, and corrupt regimes in South America. Since he’s the founder and grand poobah of something called the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), it’s not unreasonable to ask a few questions. For example: who, exactly, is providing the funds to pay Weisbrot’s salary and keep his “center” afloat? And who are the other powerhouses who make up this “center,” which represents itself as a hotbed of serious economic analysis?

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Walden Bello

Well, as it turns out, most of CEPR’s staffers and directors have more of a background in organized left-wing activism on issues like global warming and women’s rights than in economics. No fewer than three members of CEPR’s small staff (John Schmitt, Deborah James, and Alexander Main) used to work for the “Information Office” of the Venezuelan government – which isn’t exactly famous for its world-class economic acumen. As for CEPR’s “board of directors,” it includes Filipino congressman Walden Bello, a critic of capitalism and globalization who’s written such books as Capitalism’s Last Stand?: Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (2013). In a piece on free trade, Bello put the word “free” in scare quotes. In November 2010, Bello called Néstor Kirchner “remarkable,” “an exemplary figure in the Global South when it came to dealing with international financial institutions.” Pronounced Bello: “Along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Kirchner was one of several remarkable leaders that the crisis of neoliberalism produced in Latin America.”

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Danny Glover

Also on the CEPR’s board is Julian Bond, an activist and former NAACP head who’s compared the Tea Party to the Taliban. Neither Bello nor Bond is a trained economist. The most familiar name on the list is Danny Glover – yes, that Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, whose love for Hugo Chávez, for Fidel Castro, and for Communism generally we’ve already discussed on this site. Needless to say, Glover isn’t an economist either.

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Dan Beeton

Then there’s CEPR’s International Communications Director, Dan Beeton. In August 2014, he wrote a paean to Cristina Kirchner’s newly appointed Minister of the Economy that read less like the work of a sober economist than of an overly gushing publicist. Excerpt: “Alex Kicillof, the telegenic economy minister famous for his Elvis-style sideburns, has emerged on the international stage as a heroic figure championing the Argentine people. Kicillof is perhaps reminiscent of another bold, young economy minister in a different South American country: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, whose public sparring with the World Bank in 2005 helped to launch his political career.”

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Robert Naiman

Finally, check out CEPR staffer Robert Naiman, who, after Néstor Kirchner’s death, eulogized him at the Daily Kos website for “defying Washington and the International Monetary Fund.” Naiman also recommended Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border, which represented Kirchner as a hero – and which, as we’ve seen, was written by Weisbrot. Who’s Naiman? In addition to his work at CEPR and his writing for sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, he’s served as Policy Director for a website called “Just Foreign Policy,” and as head of the board of the “progressive” news website Truthout, as a member of the steering committee of Gaza’s Ark (which is all about repeatedly violating Israel’s sea blockade of the Palestinian territories).

Back to Weisbrot tomorrow for a wind-up.

The “able propagandist”: Mark Weisbrot

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Mark Weisbrot

A few months after Cristina Kirchner’s October 2011 re-election as president of Argentina, American economist Mark Weisbrot – whose career as a sycophant of socialist despots we’ve been charting the last couple of days – cheered her decision to nationalize her country’s largest oil company, the Spanish-owned YPF. This move was roundly condemned by other economists, who quite rightly recognized that it would drive sensible investors away from Argentina, at least until Kirchner was out of office. “Investors don’t like this, but does that matter?” Weisbrot asked, insisting that foreign investment isn’t “an essential ingredient of economic growth.” Indeed, he claimed, Cristina’s re-election was the result of a “success story” that’s “rarely told, mostly because it involved reversing many of the failed neoliberal policies…that brought the country to ruin in its worst recession of 1998-2002.” Her triumph, Weisbrot pronounced, was part of a process by which Latin America had “achieved its ‘second independence.’”

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Cristina Kirchner

And that’s really what Weisbrot’s enthusiasm for both Venezuelan chavismo and Argentina’s Kirchnerism is all about. When he’s written about those two countries, he hasn’t served up objective economic analysis but propaganda against Western (especially American) capitalism. He doesn’t want to see South Americans thrive; he wants to see them win their “independence” from the international capitalist system – the “colonialists,” the “imperialists” – even if their so-called “independence” means that the people live under the thumb of a petty tyrant who’s made him- or herself the center of a personality cult.

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Hugo Chávez

For Weisbrot, loyalty to these autocrats comes first. After Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, Weisbrot eulogized  him not only in print but at a February 2014 propaganda-fest, entitled “The Legacy of Hugo Chávez: At Home And Abroad,” at Venezuela’s D.C. Embassy. A month later he was in Caracas to head up another tribute sponsored by the Venezuelan government, this one called “Chávez, Communicator of the 21st Century.” Weisbrot also poured out the praise after Nestor Kirchner’s death in 2010, gushing that history would remember Kirchner “not only as a great president but also as an independence hero of Latin America.” Never mind that more and more Venezuelans and Argentinians felt that these leaders – far from giving them any kind of independence – had in fact been steadily robbing them of their freedoms.

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Nestor Kirchner

Given his obvious sycophancy and ideological enthrallment to these characters, what gives Weisbrot’s economic pronouncements any validity, any authority? Why should anybody take them seriously? Well, as we’ve noted, he’s associated with something called the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which is based in Washington, D.C. Certainly sounds legitimate, no? In fact, this “center” is something Weisbrot founded himself, in the way that your gardener or garbageman might appoint himself head of something called, say, the World Council of Cardiology or the International Center for Nuclear Research.

It may or may not be a coincidence, moreover, that the name of Weisbrot’s “center” closely echoes that of a respected British institution, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (no “and”), with which it has absolutely no connection. As one commentator puts it, Weisbrot’s “center” provides him with “an aura of credibility to journalists in the mainstream media who, when writing about Venezuela, want to get both sides of the story — including the leftist pro-Venezuela version that Weisbrot provides. And so they go to Weisbrot, an able propagandist.”

Indeed, when you come right down to it, CEPR is precisely what that commentator suggests – nothing more or less than a propaganda factory, an outfit that isn’t about carrying out responsible economic research but about churning out PR for the Venezuelan and Argentinian regimes.

Apocalypse no?

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Mark Weisbrot

Yesterday we began taking a long look at Mark Weisbrot, whose enthusiasm for chavista economics appears to know no bounds. In November 2013, he ruled out the possibility of a “Venezuelan apocalypse” of the kind that is now well underway. Then came last December’s parliamentary elections, when, as we’ve seen, the Venezuelan electorate registered its loathing for President Nicolás Maduro’s incompetent handling of the economy, his increasing restriction on civil rights, and other outrages. But Weisbrot hadn’t given up the fight. In an article  headlined “What Next For Venezuela?”, he started out by trying to put a good face on the people’s verdict. For one thing, he applauded Maduro for accepting the results of the vote. (In short, he praised the prez for doing the right thing and not violating the constitution; one might, in the same way, give somebody a pat on the back for not committing murder or rape.) For another, he attributed the heavy anti-Maduro tally to the opposition’s supposedly greater financial resources and to media support. 

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Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López

Weisbrot strove throughout, in fact, to paint the chavista regime as responsible, law-abiding, and prepared to work harmoniously with its critics to fix the economy; meanwhile, he depicted those critics as violent, polarizing extremists who, unreasonably, refused to cooperate with the government in the interest of bringing the economy around. He also persisted in his now utterly ludicrous claim that life in the Bolivarian Republic had “changed substantially for the better” under Chávez and Maduro. Yes, he felt obliged to acknowledge the current economic crisis; but what he wouldn’t admit was that it was the predictable result of policies he himself had supported and helped devise. Nor did his pretty picture of the Maduro regime take into account such violations of human rights as the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo López.

Former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner gestures as he arrives for a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Government Palace in Buenos Aires, June 17, 2008. Kirchner's wife Argentine President Cristina Fernandez's image deteriorated further in June as a nasty dispute with the farm sector entered its fourth month, according to a poll released on Tuesday. Her center-left government raised soy export taxes in mid-March, sparking farmer protests that have caused occasional food and fuel shortages. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci (ARGENTINA)
Late Argentine President Nestor Kirchner

All right. So who is Mark Weisbrot? He’s an economist who’s associated with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Sounds impressive, right? But his pronouncements on Venezuela and Argentina make it clear that Weisbrot is just about as far from the consensus on these nations’ economies as possible. Serious, objective members of his profession have been warning for years that Chávez, Maduro, and the Kirchners were leading their countries down the garden path. In September 2014, for example, The Economist ran an article about Venezuela subtitled “Probably the World’s Worst-Managed Economy.” It began: “A big oil producer unable to pay its bills during a protracted oil-price boom is a rare beast. Thanks to colossal economic mismanagement, that is exactly what Venezuela, the world’s tenth-largest oil exporter, has become.” A few months earlier, the same periodical ran a piece headlined “The Tragedy of Argentina: A Century of Decline.” A sampling: “Its standing as one of the world’s most vibrant economies is a distant memory….it trails Chile and Uruguay in its own back yard…. It has shut itself out of global capital markets…Property rights are insecure….Statistics cannot be trusted.”

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Cristina Kirchner

Such, more or less, is the verdict of virtually all respected economists on these two countries. But Weisbrot sings a different tune. In 2007 – five years after Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt – he toasted Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s victory in that year’s election, calling it “not difficult to explain” given her husband’s glowing performance in office during the previous four years. In 2011, with the country’s inflation rate hovering at around 25%, Weisbrot – under the headline “Cristina Kirchner and Argentina’s Good Fortune” – assured readers of the Guardian that Argentina under Cristina, who was then running for re-election, was doing “remarkably well” and undergoing a “remarkable expansion.”

And then? More tomorrow.

Mark Weisbrot, Bolivarian booster

It’s all happening at once. Venezuela’s socialist economy is crashing and burning; Brazil’s socialist president is being impeached for doctoring budget figures to make that country’s faltering economy look better; Argentina’s socialist ex-president is on trial for defrauding her economic basket case of a country to the tune of five billion dollars.

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Oliver Stone

All of these corrupt, incompetent, and ideologically misguided regimes – as we’ve pointed out time and again on this website – have had their share of foolish celebrity admirers north of the border, from Oliver Stone to Sean Penn. But as these economies have nose-dived, the gushing has tended to die down, and the fans have tended to scatter. In late May, we focused our gaze on Nick Dearden, a full-time anti-capitalist activist and one of the few stooges who’ve continued to be lured by the siren song of South American socialism. He’s recently blamed Argentina’s woes on its creditors, and in January he actually described Venezuela as an economic “beacon of hope.”

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Mark Weisbrot

Another member of this curious club is Mark Weisbrot. The difference between the two men is that while Dearden, who runs a group called Global Justice Now, is pretty much what he presents himself as being – namely, a far-left street-agitator type who never quite seems comfortable without a protest sign in his hand or his fist in the air – Weisbrot actually poses as a serious economist of the first order.

Is he? Well, put it this way. Some stooges are more useful than others; Weisbrot is a really useful one. Want a defense of the indefensible from somebody whose credentials as an economic expert sound legit? Want an economist whose loyalty to the creeps in the Milaflores Palace and to the sticky-fingered czarina who recently vacated the Casa Rosada outstrips the devotion of the most zealous fan of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber – no matter how dismal the latest quarterly results? Look no further. Weisbrot’s your man.

Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during a campaign rally in San Carlos, Cojedes State, on April 4, 2013. The presidential campaign to replace Venezuela's Hugo Chavez formally kicked off Tuesday, with Maduro -- Chavez's hand-picked successor -- battling opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the forthcoming April 14 vote. AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

We’ll spend this week probing Weisbrot’s history of defending socialist regimes in South America. But let’s start with a couple of his more recent pieces on Venezuela, which he wrote during a period when other enthusiasts for the Bolivarian Republic were heading for the hills. Take an article he wrote for The Guardian in November 2013.  Its headline: “Sorry, Venezuela haters: this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” Its subtitle: “Predicting a Venezuelan apocalypse won’t make it happen.”

“For more than a decade,” Weisbrot sneered, “people opposed to the government of Venezuela have argued that its economy would implode.” For years, he stated, the predictions had failed to come true. But now Venezuela was “facing economic problems that are warming the cockles of the haters’ hearts” – as if the critics of chavista economics hated the Venezuelan people, when in fact what they hated was the socialist policies that were gradually destroying those people’s lives.

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Empty supermarket shelves in Venezuela

Noting that supplies of consumer goods were shriveling, that consumer prices had risen 49% in the last year, and that the U.S. dollar was worth seven times the official rate on the black market, Weisbrot might have acknowledged a degree of personal responsibility for the way things were going. Instead, he slickly made the critics of his approach into the bad guys: “Will those who cried wolf for so long finally see their dreams come true?”

Customers line up to get in for shopping at a state-run Bi centenario supermarket in Caracas May 2, 2014.  President Nicolas Maduro is introducing a controversial shopping card intended to combat Venezuela's food shortages but decried by critics as a Cuban-style policy illustrating the failure of his socialist policies. Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, trumpets the new "Secure Food Supply" card, which will set limits on purchases, as a way to stop unscrupulous shoppers stocking up on subsidized groceries and reselling them. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3NL83
One of Venezuela’s long, long grocery lines. (This was May 2014; it’s worse now, of course.)

His answer: no. While Maduro’s opponents saw Venezuela as being “caught in an inflation-devaluation spiral,” Weisbrot insisted that “a government with more than $90bn in oil revenue” could not – and would not – “end up with a balance-of-payments crisis…..This government is not going to run out of dollars.” Nor, he maintained, was the country in serious danger of hyperinflation; notwithstanding the current problems, Venezuela was “very capable of providing healthy growth even while bringing down inflation.” While the country was “facing serious economic problems,” they weren’t the kind of problems that were being experienced by Greece and Spain.

Even last December, by which time Venezuela was clearly circling the drain, Weisbrot maintained his boosterish take on chavismo. Tune in tomorrow.