Never before has Latin America seen so many corruption scandals. Scarcely a nation in the region has been spared the trauma of watching its highest-ranking public officials – including former presidents and cabinet members – accused of malfeasance. These acts fall into two main categories: taking bribes for using public office in an inappropriate manner, and absconding with public funds.
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In a previous Expert View on corruption in Latin America, we noted the extraordinary impact of the massive diversion of public money from the Brazilian national petroleum company, Petrobras. That scandal led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) and corruption charges against her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2011).
The investigation into Petrobras also has exposed the role of Norberto Odebrecht Construora, the giant Brazilian construction company that, aside from paying off local politicians, also paid enormous bribes to high-ranking government officials in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. The company made smaller forays into Chile, Argentina and, perhaps, Mexico, with all of this illicit activity aimed at securing government contracts. What is remarkable about the current situation is that the proliferation of public scandals may be taken as good rather than bad news.
While there is no doubt that the public outcry against corruption is without precedent – public opinion polls throughout the region show that corruption is either the most significant or second most worrisome concern for most citizens – there is no evidence that there has been a significant increase in corruption to provoke such an outcry.
Instead, something very positive for Latin America’s long-term prospects appears to be happening, for complicated reasons. Some have to do with globalization, others show that democracy in several Latin American countries is starting to function as it should. Most importantly, local institutions have been vigorously defending the rule of law and its constitutional boundaries.
The truly good news is that democratic institutions are demonstrating a capacity to uphold the laws of the land
Factors associated with globalization, such as the dramatic growth of social media that allows for lightning-fast dissemination of information (real and fake news alike), effectively lower the barriers for collective action and may, in the long run, favor democratic governance. In addition, the commodities-driven export boom of the last decade produced a huge expansion in the middle class in almost every country in the region.
In addition to making economic demands as consumers, these newly prosperous citizens are very active participants in the political process. This middle class has soured on the leaders of several Latin American countries, especially as they feel the pinch of an economic downtown caused by collapsing commodity prices. The losers in the globalization game, now politically active and sensitive to what they consider the unfairness of the system, view corruption as a threat to their personal well-being and are clamoring for the miscreants to be prosecuted.
The truly good news is that democratic institutions are demonstrating a capacity to uphold the laws of the land and the constitutional rights of citizens. The number of anticorruption measures enacted in Latin America has increased tenfold since the end of the Cold War. The new center-right governments in Argentina, Colombia and Peru have shown themselves willing, if not eager, to insist on transparent investigations of the corruption cases that have been made public. Center-left governments in Chile and Uruguay also have come forward to encourage public investigations. Vocal citizens have made it clear that they will hold their representatives accountable for the abuse of public power. These are developments of historic importance.
The reformers are not having everything their way, of course. In Brazil, some politicians ensnared in the Petrobras scandal have threatened to strip powers from the judicial investigators nipping at their heels. In Guatemala, corruption is only kept in check by external pressure and by a team of international investigators paid by the United States Congress. In Mexico, where several state governors accused of stealing public funds are fugitives from justice, it is not clear that the federal government is capable of bringing them to justice. Finally, research shows that petty or bureaucratic corruption continues more or less unabated.
Even with these caveats, the region-wide backlash against political corruption must be taken as a sign of health in Latin American democracies.