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Argentina's Vice President faces a verdict in a corruption trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Argentina's vice president has been found guilty of corruption by a federal court there. A three-judge panel says Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner defrauded the state of nearly $1 billion when she was then president of Argentina. She faces six years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding elected office.

NPR South America correspondent Carrie Kahn was watching this verdict from Rio de Janeiro and joins us now. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So what exactly was de Kirchner found guilty of, and when did she commit this fraud?

KAHN: Right. Well, she is the vice president, as you said, right now. She was president back in 2007 to 2015, and that's when the alleged corruption took place. Prosecutors say with the help of ministers and others, they started fake and corrupt businesses - they created them - to bid on public work projects. There were 51 of these projects in all, and funds to those projects were funneled to a construction company that either created fake contracts, they overinflated others, or they just started projects and they never finished them. And there are many highways to nowhere in Argentina. And as you said, the total amount of money siphoned off on those contracts is estimated at nearly a billion dollars.

CHANG: And what has de Kirchner said so far about this verdict?

KAHN: Well, she spoke right after on her YouTube channel. She talked for more than an hour. She was very animated. And as she has been saying for years, the trial was politically motivated against her and the judges biased against her. And here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She's saying the judges were acting like a political party, a mafia, running a parallel state in the country. This trial's gone on for years, and it's not the only one she's faced, but in the other one, she was either acquitted or had charges dismissed. This is the first time she's been personally found guilty.

De Kirchner is a very polarizing figure in Argentina. She's seen as a defender of the poor during her and her husband's presidency. Much money was directed to relieving poverty, health and social programs. So she has a very loyal base. But for others, she's just seen as a corrupt leader whose policies continue to hurt Argentina and contribute to the problems that are there now. You know, Argentina's been continually rocked by inflation since the 1990s. But right now, the economy is in dire straits, with inflation expected to hit a hundred percent by year's end.

CHANG: Wow. OK. So will de Kirchner actually be going to prison now that the verdict is out?

KAHN: No. She has a lot of appeals left, and she won't face any jail time while they're proceeding.

CHANG: But what about the fact that she is currently vice president? I mean, will she be forced to step down right away or appeals first?

KAHN: No. The political ban won't go into effect while she's, again, appealing the verdict. She says that was the whole point of the trial. Her opponents wanted to get her out of politics. She says this is just - she's just the latest leftist president in Latin America to be politically persecuted. And she groups herself alongside Brazil and Ecuador's leftist presidents that face corruption trials.

Here's analyst Daniel Kerner. He's at Eurasia Group. He's - that group has been critical of de Kirchner's economic policies. And he says her constant victimization is a major distraction in Argentina now.

DANIEL KERNER: Developments like this just makes it harder for the political elite and the political class to come together to some sort of arrangement to solve Argentina's problems that are very, very deep.

KAHN: So to be stripped of office now, Congress would have to impeach her. And her party has enough votes to stop that from happening.

CHANG: That is NPR South America correspondent Carrie Kahn. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.