Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president of Argentina, has just exited a federal court via the back door after appearing before a judge investigating her possible links to a corruption case in her home province of Santa Cruz. In most countries, the resulting photographs would spell the death of a political career, but Argentina is different. This is no walk of shame and Fernández de Kirchner is not alone. Nor does she walk with her head bowed.
At the door, thousands of supporters await the woman who was president of Argentina from 2007 to 2015. The crowd is smaller than it had been in April, when judges grilled her about alleged fraudulent derivatives trading on the part of the country’s central bank. But they were vocal nonetheless, shouting: “We will be back!” And: “Cristina is one of the people and no one can touch her!”
Also there to support the charismatic former leader were the deputies and trade unionists who make up the core of her support base, as well as a busload of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association that represents the parents of children who were forcibly disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship.
Kirchner’s supporters admit footage of her former public works boss stashing away $9m has hurt her
Fernández de Kirchner no longer holds any form of public office. Formally speaking, she is a no one. But for thousands of her followers, she remains the undisputed political leader of the Peronists. And she lets herself be loved.
Many in the fractured Peronist movement would like to see Fernández de Kirchner out of the picture for good because they think she splits the movement and therefore benefits the current president, Mauricio Macri. But she has no intention of moving on and has managed to maintain a sizeable following despite being related to a string of scandals.
The former president has been called to testify in a kickbacks-for-contracts case in her home province of Santa Cruz, in the south of the country. A judge is investigating allegations she handed lucrative contracts to Lázaro Báez, an imprisoned property developer with close ties to both Fernández de Kirchner and her husband, former President Néstor Kirchner.
Báez is set to appear in court, as is the former head of her Public Works Ministry, José Lopez, who was caught on film in June placing bags containing nearly $9 million inside a convent on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
But none of this seems to upset the one-time president. On the contrary, her self-belief is on the rise. “This is an impressive example of political persecution, and it’s also happening in Brazil with Lula da Silva,” said Fernández de Kirchner, referring to the corruption charges faced by the former president of Brazil.
“They want to cover up the economic and social chaos that we have in Argentina today. They are trying to hide what everyone knows – what is going on in the supermarkets where wages can’t keep up with inflation,” she says.
They are trying to hide what everyone knows – wages can’t keep up with inflation Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
Asked whether opponents are trying to block her attempt to run in 2017 elections, Fernández de Kirchner says: “I believe they are taking aim at leaders who could be candidates and who eat into their electorate.”
She is yet to confirm whether she will run in those election but everything points in this direction. This would suit Macri, according to his supporters, because her presence would spit the Peronist vote.
Everyone in Argentina is now talking about whether Fernández de Kirchner could actually have to stand trial.
“It’s hard to see Cristina ending up in jail. It would be a disaster, but who knows. If the economic situation worsens, someone could be tempted to send her there,” Raúl Zaffaroni, a former judge with Argentina’s High Court and Kirchner supporter tells EL PAÍS.
Zaffaroni is one of the many people who have come to the federal court to support the former president along with other key figures of her entourage. All claim that she is the target of a political witch-hunt.
“This is a media circus. There are 300 police here but there is no need for it. They want to give the impression Cristina is being pursued by the justice system. But the case doesn’t have legs. The fact that they are considering whether there is any political currency in putting Cristina behind bars is incredible,” says another key figure among her group of supporters, Axel Kicillof.
“They are pursuing her out of revenge. They are scared of her as a candidate. Of course there is structural corruption in Argentina. But they are only looking at 1%, one company, one province. They should do an inventory of everything,” says Angelo Calcaterra, a cousin of Fernández de Kirchner and a businessman in construction who was the third-biggest recipient of public contracts during her time in office.
This is a media circus. There are 300 police here but there is no need for it. The case doesn’t have legs Kirchner supporter Axel Kicillof
All of the former president’s followers admit that the image of López stashing away $9 million in a convent has done her reputation a great deal of damage. But they say she didn’t know what was going on, and wasn’t involved.
Those supporters also believe prosecutors won’t be able to prove she was corrupt in her dealing with Lázaro Báez despite him having earned nearly $1 billion in construction projects in Santa Cruz.
Outside the court, the police have grown nervous, pushing back against journalists and politicians as Fernández de Kirchner approaches the crowd to greet them.
In this way, the ex-president has turned an appearance in court into a political act. But she can expect to spend the next few months waiting for the rulings of judges – as has almost always been the case with Argentinean politics.
English version by George Mills.