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Latin America’s Anti-Corruption Crusade

MEXICO CITY – Even as much of Latin America engages in almost hyperbolic celebrations over the renewed diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, the continent is facing two major challenges. The first – declining economic growth, to less than 1%, on average, across the region – has been discussed at length, with the prevailing explanation being that China’s slowing economic growth has suppressed commodity prices and, thus, Latin America’s export revenues. But it is the second – the resurgence of corruption – that is proving most interesting.

Latin America has been plagued by corruption for centuries, ever since it emerged from what the Mexican poet Octavio Paz called the “patrimonialist” nature of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule. What is different today is the response to it, with societies and institutions refusing to remain complicit in corruption, or resigning themselves to its inevitability.

This attitude is exemplified in the proliferation of trials, investigations, demonstrations, convictions, and resignations relating to corruption, particularly in Brazil and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent Mexico and Guatemala. In all four countries, major scandals have erupted, with high-level government officials and business leaders being denounced by the media, the justice system, foreign governments, and/or the local opposition. Though none of the governments implicated in the scandals will collapse – at least not exclusively because of corruption – the sheer scale of the social and political protest, not to mention legal action, is astonishing.

The most shocking story has unfolded in Brazil. Late last year – at a time when discontent was already widespread, with protests against excesses and abuses in the preparations for last year’s World Cup having erupted in 2013 – the so-called petrolâo scandal hit. Huge sums of money, it was revealed, had been transferred directly, or via immense construction companies, from Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras to President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party.