Sep 11

A culture of secrecy: Argentina’s history of corruption remains unchecked

by in Argentina

Graffitti in Buenos Aires reads, "To dream without fear - Kirchnerist poetry." The word dream is scratched out and replaced with "to rob" | photo by brandon c janes iv

Graffitti in Buenos Aires reads, “To dream without fear – Kirchnerist poetry.” The word dream is scratched out and replaced with “to rob” | photo by brandon c janes iv

 

In the 1990s articles about government corruption and scandal sold a lot of newspapers in Argentina. However, over the last two decades, as most major Latin American countries passed their first freedom of information laws, Argentina’s Congress has yet to be sold on government transparency.

This cultured country of 41 million people remains, along with Bolivia, among the only countries in South America which have not adopted a so called acceso de información, or freedom of information law, which would give journalists, lawyers and – as is the case in most countries – average citizens the right to request information about its government.

Last night I took a old-fashioned cage elevator up to the eigth floor office of Argentina’s Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, a civil liberties NGO based on Avenida Cordoba in Buenos Aires. There I met with Ramiro Álvares Ugarte, director of acceso a la información.

A bright, young lawyer, educated at Colombia University in New York City, Ugarte was quick to disparage the current administration’s lack of transparency.

“You want to access public contracts, and you can’t, you want to access the names of federal employees and you can’t, you want to access information on how much they get paid and you can’t,” Ugarte said.

“There are ways of doing it but no mechanism in place to enforce them.”

In both 2003 and 2011, a transparency bills were brought before the Argentine Congress and failed. Ugarte now believes that the hope of a comprehensive anti-corruption law remains distant.

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, director of freedom of information at the Association for Civil Rights in Argentina, believes the fight for a right to freedom of infomation in his country has a long way to go | photo by brandon c janes iv

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, director of freedom of information at the Association for Civil Rights in Argentina, believes the fight for a right to freedom of infomation in his country has a long way to go | photo by brandon c janes iv

Kirchnerista paradox

Ugarte, who lobbied for a freedom of information law in 2011, said the bill failed because Argentina President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and her Frente para la Victoria or FPV party did not support it.

It is a paradox, he said. Fernandez, is a neo-populist – which is considered extremely liberal – but she has such illiberal policies, such as not supporting transparency in her administration.

Although there is no law in the books, journalists have gotten into the habit of simply suing the Argentine government in order to get the information they need – a process that is time consuming and cost prohibitive for most people. But  in many cases it is also successful, Ugarte said.

ADC helped defend journalists in a lawsuit that forced Presidents Fernandez to divulge her salary, which was curiously low.

“If you have to go to court to access information than the freedom of information is not really a right,” Ugarte said. “That’s not enough.”

A 2003 presidential decree – during Christina Kirchner’s husband Nestor Kirchner presidency – granted some rights to citizens to request information. However with the decree – which is not a law – it is easy for the government to deny a request on spurious grounds, Ugarte said.

Ugarte said, the biggest challenge is that no government agency or authority takes responsibility for processing the requests, such as the the Comisión defensor Ciudana y Trasparencia in Chile, which has the authority to force other government agency’s to cough up information.

“If you don’t have anybody in charge of it, in a country as large as Argentina, nothing is going to happen,” Ugarte said.

‘We don’t have the tool and so the lying goes on’

The Argentine government’s refusal to admit the true rate of the country’s hyperinflation over the past few years, see Monday’s Not adjusted for inflation: Argentina’s black market currency, is a good example of how a lack of access to government information permits blatant lying by the government, Ugarte said.

Journalists requested reports from the federal statistics institute, INDEC, to show how they calculate inflation but the bid has been unsuccessful.

Independent analysts say that, since 2007, the Argentine peso has inflated 137 percent. The government says prices have gone up just 44 percent over that same period, according to the Economist magazine.

“There is a simply a lack of adequate means of fighting that,” Ugarte said.

“If you had a mechanism, these public authorities would be entitled and embpowered to question a public officials that are blatantly lying.”

“We don’t have the tool and so the lying goes on,” he added.

So why haven’t Argentineans – always prone to protest – risen up against it? I asked.

“Because, people are just so tired of hearing about it, they have gotten fatigued,” Ugarte said.

“Unfortunately, it may take something really big, a really big scandal to get a law passed.”

AFTERTHOUGHT added after original posting

It appears not much has changed since 1991, when New Yorker magazine reporter Alma Guillermoprieto wrote about what she called the “experimental nature of democracy” in Argentina,

“No body knows the rules of the game here, and no body knows what is supposed to happen if the game folds.”

All though we only spoke about politics briefly, I think Ugarte would agree with that.

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* this post’s headline is from a book written by Edison Lanza and produced by El Centro de Archivo y Acceso a la información public or CAinfo in Montevideo, Uruguay called “Conquering a Culture of Secrecy.”

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