Public Ethics and Corruption, Discussions from Latin America

The 21st Annual CAF Conference in Washington, DC on September 6th and 7th added a new, overdue panel to its agenda, corruption. The very first question for the panel, featuring representatives from Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, and members of CAF (the Latin American Development Bank), was “is there more corruption in the region, or is it more visible?” Resoundingly, the answer was both. The head of CAF suggested that only recently have the citizens of the region come to understand the full scope of corruption in the public sector and few believe that what they are seeing today is anything new.

Interestingly, a panel on upcoming elections suggested the issue of corruption will be a leading influencer for the region’s electorates, more so than ideology or even peace, in the case of Colombia. Some panelists lamented that many citizens of the region are resigned to the fact that all politicians are corrupt and therefore it is not a disqualifier for office. Voters are more likely to support the corrupt candidate that benefits them directly – though clientelism is common all over the world, its long term effects should be especially alarming in the wake of what’s happening in Venezuela.

So what precipitated this shift in the conversation or more accurately, a willingness to have it? Melina Flores, Attorney General for Brasilia, suggested that the Petrobras scandal sparked such outrage, enough to bring down a president and many members of the political establishment. The extent and gratuitousness of the misuse of public office awakened the Brazilian people and brought them to the streets where they demanded an end to impunity. It also created a ripple effect of awareness throughout much of the region.

Knowing is not enough. Even politicians elected on anti-corruption platforms can find themselves under investigation, as is the case with Guatemala’s President, Jimmy Morales. Under investigation for illegal financing and possibly facing jail time, he has threatened to expel Ivan Velazquez, Commissioner for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velazquez, originally slated to attend the conference, was notably absent from Thursday’s panel. In his place was Claudia Escobar, former Magistrate of the Court of Appeals of Guatemala, who was forced to flee to the United States in 2015 after whistleblowing on the former President of the Guatemalan Congress.

Escobar suggested that any investigatory capacity is simply not enough if the institutions meant to hold politicians accountable cannot withstand pressure from those they seek to sanction. If CICIG becomes obsolete, the fight to end corruption will be left to the people of Guatemala. Escobar specified that Guatemalans are beginning to see that corruption is much more than stealing or misusing resources – it is responsible for why millions emigrate: poor health outcomes, poor education, decaying infrastructure and an extreme lack of security.

So what can be done? Some panelists argued that the private sector must work with civil society to expose corruption. That transparency is most needed in the administrative processes involved in governance, specifically those with inherent risks and opportunities for politicians and bureaucrats to misuse their positions. Everyone called for strengthening institutions, and safeguarding a truly independent judiciary.

Louisa Tomar is a Program Officer for Global programs at CIPE.