Argentina's fallen idol

Ex-aide to Mothers of Plaza de Mayo rights group claims he was betrayed after he made founder into "a legend"

Until May this year, Sergio Schoklender was one of Argentina's most popular figures; a high-flyer with connections to the country's presidency. Over the last decade he had worked closely with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, a group renowned for its fight against the 1976-83 military dictatorship. More recently, it has become a pillar of support for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

But now the 53-year-old Schoklender stands accused of misappropriating millions of dollars in public funds and has been forced to step down as adviser to Hebe de Bonafini, the founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. She has called Schoklender "a swindler and a traitor."

The Justice Ministry and Argentinean Congress are investigating Sergio and his brother, Pablo Schoklender, over allegations they misappropriated part of an estimated $150-to-$300 million sum the two Kirchner governments transferred from public funds to the Mothers to finance the construction of low-income housing.

Schoklender denies any wrongdoing, saying that the accusations are part of a campaign to sully the reputation of the Mothers and the government. In an interview last week, he turned on his former mentor, saying among other things that De Bonafini had robbed supermarkets to fund the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in its early days.

"She told me that when they went out fundraising, they did it 'like in the old days,' and I asked her what she meant. She said: 'robbing, stealing in supermarkets; most of the time, we try to make sure that they were representative of the oligarchy, not the corner pharmacy.'"

Schoklender says that he is speaking out now because it is "only fair."

"I am paying the price for having built up a legend. I'm trying to repair some of the damage I have done. A lot of good people worked hard to build that organization, and Hebe has destroyed it," he says.

The inquiry mainly centers on Meldorek, a building contractor the Mothers used on an ambitious government-funded housing program, known as Sueños compartidos (Shared Dreams). Sergio Schoklender says he had no financial interest in Meldorek, but a corporate registry subsequently revealed that he owns 90 percent of the company.

Meldorek's performance as a home builder has also been the target of complaints in the Argentinean media.

Congressman Gustavo Ferrari, a member for the dissident faction of the ruling Peronist party in Buenos Aires province, said during a committee hearing that the Mothers had grown to be the second-largest home builder in Argentina, but he added that Meldorek was billing the equivalent of about $40,000 for a house that other contractors built for $25,000.

Meldorek has been working in Chaco province for more than a year, but has finished only 18 of 500 houses it has said it would build, say local officials. Earlier in the year, a foundation run by the Mothers bounced a series of checks related to the housing program.

"I never took a peso. But there was money around for the foundation's costs, which were run by the Mothers. That's how politics works. For my part, aside from building houses; I used the money to keep the Mothers going, to stage rallies, as well as for Hebe's whims, her daughter's whims, her daughter's house, cultural centers, a radio station, the Mothers' university, the trips, the drivers - I was working miracles every day," he says.

The Schoklenders and several associates are being probed for money laundering, fraud and racketeering. The Argentinean media has accused Schoklender of using public money to buy a country estate, yachts, planes and a Ferrari sports car.

In the 1980s, Schoklender and his brother, Pablo - who had a lesser role with the Mothers - earned notoriety in a different way when they were convicted of murdering their parents in a case that riveted the nation. De Bonafini visited the brothers while they were in jail, campaigning for, and eventually securing their release before taking them under her wing.

Some Argentinean psychologists who have written about the case have in recent days suggested that the Schoklenders took on the role of surrogate sons to De Bonafini, replacing the two sons who had gone missing at the military's hands.

The government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has taken pains to shift suspicions away from De Bonafini, asserting that the brothers are to blame for any irregularities. Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo said earlier this year that "in no way should doubts be sowed about an organization that is the pride of the world."

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo gained international attention in the 1970s when its white-head-scarf-wearing members defied Argentina's military dictatorship by marching around Buenos Aires' central plaza every Thursday to protest the "disappearances" of their children by security forces. They eventually helped to galvanize opposition to the brutal dictatorship, which was found to have kidnapped and killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

De Bonafini has been a polarizing figure due to her radical political views. Some of the mothers split with her group in the 1980s to form a separate human rights organization. And De Bonafini has faced criticism for her embrace of authoritarian leaders such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, as well as her strident anti-Americanism.

Schoklender says that the Mothers had also considered forming its own armed group during the dictatorship.

"The idea was to send comrades to train with the FARC in Colombia, with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, and then those people would return and start a job somewhere. That was the only possible idea because we saw no other way out," Schoklender said.

Sergio Schoklender (at right) with Hebe de Bonafini en 2004.
Sergio Schoklender (at right) with Hebe de Bonafini en 2004.IVÁN FRANCO (EFE)

TV channel raid

In an unprecedented move, about 50 National Guard troops in Argentina on Tuesday raided and took over the private television cable operator channel, Cablevisión, after a judicial complaint had been filed by a private communications company reportedly affiliated with the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The raid, according to Cablevisión officials, is part of the Fernández government's ongoing battle with the Clarín media group and other opposition media. Cablevisión is part of Grupo Clarín.

Mendoza Judge Walter Vento put Cablevisión under a receivership after rival Vila-Manzano media group filed an anti-monopoly complaint against the cable television operator.

In a statement, Cablevisión officials accused the Vila-Manzano group of going "judge shopping" because they obtained the court order in Mendoza where the cable company doesn't have offices. "It is another act without precedent that is part of the national government's systematic discriminatory campaign against Grupo Clarín," the company said in a statement. Television cameras and journalists from state-run media were at the scene.

The raid came just one week after the Chamber of Deputies in Argentina approved a new newsprint law that would control the distribution of paper for publications. Since last year, the government has been battling for control of Papel Prensa, the leading newsprint company which is jointly owned by Group Clarín and the daily La Nación. The new law would allow the government to become a partner in the company "in the public's interest" and decide the distribution of newsprint. The Senate is also expected to pass the law within a week.

Fast track

The law was put on the fast track following President Fernández's re-election victory in October. Under the new law, Papel Prensa will have to offer a standard price for newsprint for all publications and, after every three years, present an investment plan. If the private owners don't invest, the government, as minority shareholder, can cover the deficiencies and thus take ownership of the entire company.

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