Corruption is not exactly a new phenomenon in Latin America. Indeed, corruption scandals have been a fixture on the region’s landscape since time immemorial. So there is nothing in principle new or surprising about the ongoing, almost endless drama that has engulfed Brazil’s President Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, his political organization – the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, or Workers’ Party) – and much of the country’s political elite. But this scandal, unlike many others before it, is taking place in a consolidated democratic environment, and on the left.
Of course, there has never been any reason to expect the left to be more honest than anyone else. To be sure, socialist, communist, or Castroite movements and leaders in Latin America have traditionally denounced graft, influence-peddling, and government grand larceny by the hemisphere’s traditional right-wing dictatorships or even centrist constitutional regimes. It is also undeniable that the left, rarely having held power, has enjoyed fewer opportunities to lay its hands on national treasuries for one purpose or another.
It is always easier to be honest when in opposition, although it also has always been far more dangerous, sometimes fatally so, to be out of power or favor in Latin America. But, as Latin America’s left claims more governments – today in Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Uruguay, and partly Argentina, and perhaps Mexico, Bolivia, and Nicaragua in the near future – there is no reason why it should be immune from the region’s eternal ills.
Clearly, the Brazilian left, like its Venezuelan, Argentine, Uruguayan, Mexican, and Bolivian counterparts, has not been inoculated against corruption. If Chile’s left seems to be somewhat impervious to the trend, this has much more to do with the country’s history and culture than with its socialist parties.
Thus, the accusations – and facts – about the PT’s flagrant violations of Brazil’s campaign-finance laws, together with its apparently brazen attempts to buy votes in Congress (not unlike what often occurs in more mature democracies) is not very surprising. Only a naive belief in the left’s intrinsic honesty could lead anyone to think that a totally dysfunctional institutional framework – in Brazil, in Argentina, in Mexico – and a history of what Octavio Paz called a patrimonial culture of the state would not generate the same consequences on the left that it did on the right and center.
But there is another explanation for Lula’s tragedy. It is one thing for corruption to thrive and graft to spread throughout government in the shadows of dictatorship and authoritarian rule.
(There is no way of really knowing just how corrupt left-wing regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela truly were, or are.) It is quite another for this to happen in a radically different environment, in which transparency, a free press, an independent Congress, and a vibrant civil society are firmly in place, as is true of today’s Brazil, Mexico, or Chile.
The paradox of Brazil’s current corruption scandal, and of the widespread corruption of the Mexican left in Mexico City, is that the advent of democracy, which has unveiled, documented, and focused attention on corruption, is largely a product of the left’s struggle over the past two decades in both countries. Without the left, it is unlikely that democratic rule would have come as soon as it did, or that it would be as solidly rooted as seems to be the case today. But the left appears to have ignored that democracy and transparency apply to it as much as they do to the right or anyone else.
Will Lula survive the flood of charges and revelations plaguing his government today? Will former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador be elected Mexico’s President next year, despite the outrageous corruption that characterized his administration of the world’s largest city?
The answers lie mostly in the extent of the scandal and the facts, but also in the jaded nature of many Latin Americans to accusations of corruption: everybody does it, and the left is no worse than the rest.
One hopes that Lula can survive without having to rely on such cynicism. But Mexicans have been duly warned about how López Obrador will run the country should he be elected to succeed Vicente Fox as president: the same way he ran their capital city.