Anti-corruption initiatives in several Latin American countries, notably Brazil, Guatemala and Colombia, are driving a region-wide wave of change, said government, business and civil society leaders in a session on corruption on the final day of the World Economic Forum on Latin America. Corruption “is at the front of people’s minds no matter where you go,” Brazil-based Brian Winter, Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly in the US, told participants. “It won’t go away, especially with young people.” While corruption in the region is nothing new, “something different is happening right now; something has clearly changed”.
The investigations into corruption scandals in Brazil that have led to the suspension of its president on charges of fiscal irresponsibility are the most dramatic example of the wave of anti-corrupt action across the region, Winter reckoned. In Guatemala, meanwhile, a former president and vice-president are facing charges of corruption and money laundering. “We are taking to court those who, according to object and transparent investigations, are guilty of corruption,” explained Thelma Esperanza Aldana Hernández, Attorney General of Guatemala. She described the anti-corruption efforts as an “alliance of public and private sectors and civil society” that aims to achieve the civil peace that has proven elusive for her country. “Citizen participation is key. Today, the men and women of Guatemala are fighting against the culture of corruption.”
The actual extent of corruption in Latin America is a matter of debate. Some surveys indicate that, while the region has high levels of corruption, they are not as high as in Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa or South-East Asia. The perception that corruption in Latin America is rising may be due to more widespread reporting and the spread of social media. “Fifteen years ago, people had very little access to information, but now everybody has it,” explained Juan Carlos Botero, Executive Director of The World Justice Project in the US. “Information about corruption has become so generalized that the social pressures to address the problem have become more important.”
It is crucial is not to confuse the symptomsfor the disease, Botero warned. With corruption, “the patient has a fever. But what is causing that fever? It is the institutional framework at large.” While increased reporting may be due to the perception that corruption in Latin America is on the rise, Elizabeth Ungar Bleier, Executive Director of Transparencia por Colombia and Member of the International Board of Berlin-based Transparency International, believed that the problem is mounting. Certainly, corruption is more sophisticated, she stressed. “The [negative] effects of corruption on the most vulnerable sectors continues. There is no declining trend.”
Ungar was particularly concerned about corruption in post-conflict Colombia. “Peace building is about rebuilding trust of citizens in the government and it raises questions about human rights, poverty and the security of citizens,” she said. With Colombia moving towards signing a peace agreement with armed revolutionaries by the end of this year, “struggling against corruption in the post-conflict era is not something we can postpone. This is at the heart of peace building in a country like Colombia.”
What factors are giving strength to the anti-corruption sentiment and activism in Latin America? Winter argued that there has been a “secular change” in people’s tolerance of corruption and their sense of the punishment it deserves. The rise of people out of poverty and expansion of the middle class have meant that many more citizens are no longer focused on hand-to-mouth subsistence and are now more interested in the quality of life and such issues as good governance and the rule of law. The spread of democracy and the strengthening of democracies in the region have also mattered. “The challenge is to get from the old thing to the new thing, from the old structure to a new structure that is not totally clean but materially better,” said Winter. “In Brazil, we see how difficult this is.”
To bolster this shift, the region needs new names, particularly the youth, to get involved, Winter advised. “These people need to get off the sidelines and into politics.” Investors should not be chased away by the noise created by the wrenching process of addressing corruption, he remarked. “If you see a country where this is happening, that may be where to make a long-term bet.” For his part, Sergio Romani, Chief Executive Officer, South America Region of EY in Brazil, said he is confident that the storms of scandal and anti-corruption investigations will bring major benefits. In Brazil, he concluded, “we are in a bad place, but we have got to get through it to have a better country. I hope that this will ripple through Latin America.”