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On a recent visit to Argentina, I found the people much more frustrated, angry and skeptical about their collective future than at any time in recent years.
Contrary to what one might think, the general sense of hopelessness is not due to the economy.
Argentina has sailed through the world economic crisis relatively unscathed thanks to high commodity prices, and economists project a growth of at least 4 percent this year.
Rather, it's because Argentines see no way out for the massive political corruption that seems to be condemning this country to lagging increasingly behind some of its neighbors -- especially Brazil and Chile -- and keeping it from drastically reducing poverty and crime rates.
Despite President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's low popularity and a much-heralded opposition victory in the mid-2009 legislative elections, her government -- widely believed to be run by her husband, former President Néstor Kirchner -- is very much in control, thanks to a combination of authoritarianism, massive economic rewards to political loyalists and a divided opposition.
And contrary to what happened in Argentina's previous cycles of generalized despair, emigration is not an option this time because of the economic crisis and tighter immigration controls in the United States and Europe.
What seems to have started the latest round of collective frustration was the news -- announced during the year-end holidays -- that a court had dismissed illicit enrichment charges against the Kirchners for a significant increase in their personal fortune.
The Kirchners had reported a 158 percent increase in their personal
income in 2008. The couple's declared personal income, listed when
Kirchner took office in 2003 at
Much of the increase was due to higher than usual interest rates paid by banks on the Kirchners' accounts and exaggerated real estate gains from transactions carried out by the presidential couple while in office, according to opposition politicians and reporters who combed through the case files.
Many angry Argentines ask how can the presidential couple -- as the pair is known here -- do so well with their investments when most of the world saw their savings plummet. And how can the country hope to draw investments when the legal system can be so easily manipulated from the top, critics say.
"Kirchner should be nominated for the Nobel Prize in economics, since we has turned from having virtually nothing to becoming one of Argentina's richest men," wrote Alberto H. Campos in a typical letter to the editor published by the daily La Nación.
The judicial ruling seemed to confirm what many suspected: The corruption charges against the presidential couple were induced by the Kirchners themselves to use their political influence while in power to have the charges dismissed, preventing any future prosecution on the same charges.
Argentina's entire justice system came across as being incredibly generous to the Kirchners.
Not only did Judge Norberto Oyarbide exonerate the couple, but the two federal prosecutors assigned to the case refused to appeal, effectively closing the investigation.
Making things worse, the news of the judge's ruling hit the front
pages of Argentine newspapers on
Irate callers to radio stations complained that while the president had sailed through a judicial investigation into her fortune, common citizens were being audited under stricter standards.
Former President Kirchner responded that the investigation into his personal income was "perfect."
The judge said he cleared the presidential couple of corruption charges because the court's experts had recommended that he do so.
My opinion: Argentina has gone through more ups and downs in recent decades than most countries, and it will most likely emerge from this one.
As the economy recovers somewhat this year, and -- especially -- if its superb soccer players do well in this year's world soccer cup, other issues will draw the public's attention, and the proximity of the 2011 presidential elections will open new avenues for hope.
Still, many Argentines note -- accurately -- that this potentially wealthy country will never take off without a greater respect for the rule of law, starting from the top.
Latin America: Corruption Puts Argentines in Sour Mood | Latin America