Why is corruption so prominent in the contemporary Latin American political scen

Political corruption can be defined in many different ways but the most widely accepted definition of the term is the abuse of political power for personal gain in a manner that could be deemed as unethical or unfair (1) No country on earth is free from corruption, but the amount and impact it has varies greatly. Traditionally corruption has occurred in poor countries, rates of corruption being much higher in developing countries compared with OECD countries. Latin America, with its many developing states has traditionally been seen as suffering from corruption on a large scale. )

Corruption is deeply embedded in Latin American political structures although it takes distinctive forms depending on each country’s history and bureaucratic traditions, however Huntingdon identifies several factors present in most Latin American states that can be said to briefly explain why corruption prospers in Latin America “Corruption thrives on disorganisation, the absence of stable relationships among groups and of recognised patterns authority… orruption is most prevalent in states which lack effective political parties, in societies where the interests of the individual, the family, the clique or the clan predominate. (3)

Corruption has prospered in so many Latin American states due to the system of government that exists in many of these countries. Kurt Weyland identifies state intervention in the economy as being one of the core explanations for corruption in Latin American. (4)

“The more the government is removed from the economic marketplace – in most instances – the less opportunity and temptation here is for corruption” argues Bernard Aronson but there is precious little evidence to show that any of Latin American government is prepared to step back, especially after the economic crisis recently experienced in Argentina. 5) The government’s role is essential in preserving corruption as it is government officials that determine what public resources are available and how they are distributed, which in itself gives huge scope for corruption. Business people are able to bribe government officials to gain financial and legal advantages from the government. This is especially relevant due to the problems that are currently going on in Latin America related to government’s allowing companies to build upon or mine land which has traditionally belonged to the indigenous populations of Latin America.

Allegations of corruption are rife in this matter, as courts overturn past victories of indigenous movements in favour of multi-national corporations. (6). The resurgence of democracy in Latin America in the past two decades can also be identified as being a major factor in contributing to continuing corruption. Following the transition to a democratic government, the result has been to increase the number of actors in the political process which therefore increases the opportunity for corruption.

Under the old authoritarian regimes it was possible to get what you wanted by bribing a member of the government; however democratisation and decentralisation of power has created a wider group of government officials all of whom may demand a share of the loot, thereby increasing corruption, “Under Brazil’s military government contractors had to pay bureaucrats 8 to 12 percent of the value of a public works project to be awarded the deal.

This percentage is said to have hit a record 40 to 50 percent under the short-lived Collor de Mello administration – the first president elected by a direct popular vote in 29 years. ” (7). The weakness of many political parties in Latin America has also lead to corruption, “In a modernising polity, the weaker and less accepted the political parties, the greater the likelihood of corruption. 8) Venezuela’s two main established political parties are in a mess, Peru’s long-dominant parties have lost ground to an amalgam of independent parties and in Argentina, the Peronist party which has dominated the country for almost half a decade has split into warring factions, while the country’s economic crisis has weakened the reputation of their rivals. Endemic corruption is also part of a broader and deeper problem of lack of rule of law “It is still very ingrained in the political and economic system and the bodies that should be watchdogs, such as the judiciary are often tainted by corruption themselves,” (9) says Bernard Aronson.

Most Latin American judiciaries are antiquated, incompetent and corrupt. The underlying cause of many of modern Argentina’s problems is the state of its legal institutions, which have been neglected for decades. Argentina has often been ranked alongside the likes of China, Botswana and Colombia as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, a Global Competitiveness Report published four years ago saw Argentina listed as having one of the worst records for independence of the judiciary. (10)

The problem with modern Argentina’s legal institutions can be directly traced to its Peronist past, “I think it has to do with the country’s dictatorial past, during which there was a total lack of security. This has made people realise that political impunity and the lack of security for civilians has to come to an end,” states Beinusz Szmukler, president of the American Lawyers’ Association. (11) Before Argentina sunk into Peronism, judges of Argentina’s Supreme Court enjoyed long terms in office, free from political interference or censure.

Since the 1950s however, the average term for Supreme Court judges has decreased from on average 12 years to just 4 years, while who sits on the Supreme Court has increasingly been determined by Argentina’s Presidents, often the government choosing cronies open to corruption, resulting in Argentina’s Supreme Court, one time the firm protector of the rule of law being reduced to little more than a tool for the reigning government to use to further strengthen their position. (12) Careful political manipulation of the Supreme Court has continued well into the 1990s.

President Carlos Menem fearful of a hostile Supreme Court increased the membership from five to nine, filling the new slots with supporters of his government. Since leaving office, the former President has been faced (like many Latin American Presidents) with accusations of corruption and illegal arms sales, however despite being placed under house arrest, Mr Menem was sensationally freed by the Supreme Court, many of whom owe their selection to the judiciary to Carlos Menem. (13)

The emergence of neopopulism leaders, a form of personalistic leadership, in the past two decades has also contributed to the presence of corruption. Populism is generally used to describe politicians who claim to represent the interests of the ‘common people’, as distinct from those of the rich or powerful. (14) Neopopulist leaders such as Argentina’s Carlos Menem, Ecuador’s Lucio Gutierrez and Venezuela’s Hugo Chevez have looked towards those members of society to gain support, using television to drum up interest in them and their parties.

Neopopulist leaders have an element of authoritarianism to their rule, claiming to “represent the common good against special interests, they distance themselves from established politicians and interest organisations” (15), while at the same time demanding a degree of personal dictatorship which does not work well with democracy, Venezuela’s President Chevez recently threatening to disband several of Venezuela’s democratic institutions including the Supreme Court unless it agrees to pass the laws that he wants. (16) Neopopulist leadership has lead to the increase of corruption in Latin America.

Keeping neopopulist leaders accountable to their populations is very difficult and enables neopopulist leaders to take bribes with a reduced risk of getting caught. Furthermore one of the classic traits of neopopulist leadership is disregard for democratic norms such as an independent judiciary. (17) Many neopopulist leaders are almost compelled to commit corruption to maintain their grip on power; populist leaders require massive funds to maintain their political support among the disorganised masses, former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman diverting nearly $100m of state funds into his party’s election campaign. 8).

The increase in populist leaders across Latin America does not bode well for either resolving or reducing cases of corruption. A major problem which almost all Latin American states have faced regarding the fight again corruption is that is that it is often widely accepted by the general population. Bernard Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs during the Clinton administration argues that “There’s a culture that tolerates corruption. ” (19) An explanation for this acceptance of corruption by many citizens can be linked to Latin American history.

Sharpe and Simoes found many historical explanations for the high level of political corruption that exists in Latin America, which can trace their roots back to the days of the Spanish and Portuguese colonialism and the feudal system that they brought with them from Europe and forced onto Latin American society. (20) The colonial masters in Lisbon and Madrid used the riches of Latin America as rewards to those from the mother country that gave them loyal service. A system of support in return for favours was soon established; receiving payment soon ecame viewed as a “privilege of government service rather than unethical behaviour. (21) The experience of Paraguay seems to negate the colonialism argument. Today Paraguay is one of the most corrupt countries on earth, “named the most corrupt country in Latin America and tied for third most corrupt country in the world” (22) by Transparency International out of a total of 85 nations studied. However following achieving independence in 1814 Paraguay enjoyed almost three decades of rule largely free from corruption under the strong government of Jose Francia.

It was almost fifty years after the end of colonialism that corruption began to increase dramatically in Paraguay, no doubt influenced by the lack of strong government and by individual personal greed which has been displayed by many Latin American political leaders. (23) Increasingly Paraguayan politics began to resemble a sultanistic style of politics that can be seen to have strengthened political corruption; its legacy continues to exist in Paraguay today and fuels corruption.

Scholars Linz and Chehabi have developed a theory of sultanism originated by Max Weber and developed it using examples from various non-democratic nations including ones in Latin America. Sultanist regimes were defined by Weber as being “government’s whereby political institutions and the military and other aspects of the polity are totally personal instruments of the ruling individual to promote and maintain their power. ” (24) Linz and Chehabi argue that sultanist regimes occur when a regime is based purely on “personal leadership… e rules exercises without restraint”. (25) They also contend that under this form of government, “corruption reigns supreme at all levels” as the leader’s power is established and maintained by a mixture of fear and rewards to their collaborators. ” (26) It is possible to identify many sultanistic regimes in Latin America during the 20th century most notably Argentina under Peron, Nicaragua under the Somoza’s and Paraguay under Stroessner. Although traditional sultanist regimes are largely a thing of the past in Latin

America, one must be careful not to dismiss their existence in some diluted form. Linz and Chehabi argue that “elements of a legal-rational order of legitimising ideology are not totally absent from most sultanistic regimes” (27) and therefore just because most Latin American states are no longer experiencing traditional style sultanism, does not mean that elements of it still do not exist in Latin America, which thereby promotes the continuation of political corruption, even though overtly sultanistic regimes are no longer in existence.

As the various Latin American sates have attempted to establish themselves as democracies, which no longer openly support state sponsored corruption, small scale sultanism has been established away from the prying eyes of the reforming state. (28) Guillermo O’Donnell argues that “in the aftermath of democratisation and economic restructuring in Latin America, countries like Argentina, Brazil and Peru have attempted to downsize state bureaucracy, which in turn has weakened the government’s legitimacy and thus prevents them from establishing their authority and upholding the law outside of metropolitan areas.

Districts peripheral to the national centre, which are usually hit hardest by economic crises and are already endowed with weaker bureaucracies, create (or reinforce) systems of local power which tend to reach extremes of violent, personalistic rule – patrimonial, even sultanistic. ” (29) Corruption in rural Argentina is rife. The north-western province of Tucuman is among the country’s most corrupt area, the role of local government in the region is primarily to enrich politicians and provide jobs for their cronies.

For a region with around 400,000 official workers, almost 90,000 are employed in some form by the local government. Similar situations can be seen across Argentina and other Latin American states. (30). Modern sultanistic rulers tend to derive their power from existing structures at the centre of the polity. While describing former Argentinean President Carlos Menem as a sultanistic leader may be deemed unfair, Menem did display sultanistic traits in his handling of possible accusations of corruption against him and his government in the way that he used Presidential authority to reate a Supreme Court favourable to him.

Using the legal system for self preservation can be viewed as being a form of sultanistic government. (31). Of all the Latin American, Nicaragua has endured the most overt example of sultanism and as a result mass corruption continues to weaken Nicaragua despite the official end of the sultanist regime of the Somoza’s almost 20 years ago. The Somoza’s legacy for the continuation of Nicaraguan corruption is while in office, they either repressed opposition or co-opted it into their cycle of patronage. (32)

The Somoza’s were overthrown and despite being replaced by the anti-corruption FSLN, corruption soon crept back in, leaders of the FSLN quickly assuming extravagant lifestyles despite Nicaragua’s economic slow down. Evidence showed that politicians had begun to supplement their income with bribes. Clearly the political class in Latin America is either more greedy than its foreign counterparts (which is highly unlikely) or that quite simply the prospect of getting caught and punished for committing corruption simply isn’t enough of a threat. (33) While there were convictions, they rarely touched those at the very top of the regime.

While Latin American states like most states have laws that clearly state that corruption is illegal and breaking them should result in punishment, often the enforcement of these laws doesn’t happen, only in the last few years have politicians guilty of major corruption been jailed, although many such as Menem have been able to avoid prison. Having identified the main reasons to explain why corruption remains so prominent in Latin America, one must look at the ways that Latin American governments and their people are trying to combat corruption.

There is much evidence that Latin American states are finally attempting to quash orruption. In the last two decades, considerable effort has been made to bring about the profound political and economic reform that is deemed necessary to decrease corruption. As it increasingly becomes accepted that there is a strong link between poor economic growth and high levels of corruption, Latin American governments have began to look for ways to attack corruption. Argentina has established the Anti-Corruption Office of Argentina, the aim of which is to establish both preventative and punitive policies to stop corruption, with some success.

However the Anti-Corruption Office has tight limitations which restrict its ability to battle corruption. The Department of Investigations within the Anti-Corruption Office is very selective; more than 500 out of a possible 1400 allegations of corruption have been rejected simply because they did not fall within the Anti-Corruption Office’s mandate of investigation. (34) One must acknowledge that Latin American attitudes to corruption differ from that of the United States and Europe.

In 1992 when Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached and lost his political rights, the Brazilian public on a whole was reluctant to publicly show their disapproval of his behaviour. While under Western ideas of corruption he had committed a crime, for many Brazilians the way that Mello had used political patronage in return for money was seen by many Brazilians as merely being a “traditional mechanism of the exchange of favours. ” (35) Many Latin American states have finally begun to punish corrupt politicians. In December 2003 former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman was sentenced o 20 years in prison for corruption. 36) However Latin American states have failed to combat corruption across Latin American society. While attacking the politicians guilty of multi-million dollar corruption is a great success, what is really necessary is to combat corruption in everyday life, to end the acceptance by Latin Americans of corruption as being acceptable. Bernard Aronson argues that “the culture that allows this to be a way of life – from wealthy businessmen who have offshore accounts to the policeman who takes a bribe when you stop him on the street” (37) needs to change.

Furthermore without reform to the judiciary systems of Latin America, progress made could easily be reversed. There is some evidence to suggest that ordinary Latin Americans are beginning to openly protest against corruption, Marta Lagos, arguing that the massive public protests in Argentina in 2002 weren’t as much against the economic crisis but that “The Argentine middle class, the first in Latin America to rise up, protested against the theft and the lies of the government and that’s good news. 38) Furthermore Walter Little and Eduardo Posado-Carbo argue that increasingly ordinary citizens are realising that they must take some responsibility for corruption in Latin American “The concept of corruption as it is spread through society does not only affect a number of politicians; it affects the whole clientistic system, still based on strong factors of patrimonial dominance. In this sense the whole population, without knowing it, in involved in corruption in some way. (39)

For decades, the media of Latin America has been prevented from revealing tales of political corruption. In recent years since the return to democracy, the media has grown increasingly bolder in reporting on corruption. Weyland argues that increased press reporting of political corruption in Latin America is n important sign that the attitudes of many people in Latin America are changing “the moral standards for assessing politicians and state officials have risen and that many citizens now insist on a stricter separation of the private and public spheres. However increased media and public awareness of corruption could also have a misleading impact. Transparency International, a corruption rating index based on different surveys from independent institutions looking at how corruption among public officials and politicians is perceived.

However the result of such is that a Latin American country with considerable media attention on public corruption could rank higher on Transparency International’s list of corruption than a country with less public awareness of the amount of corruption that is going in, even though in actual fact more corruption may be taking place than in the country with a higher public awareness. (40) In conclusion, having identified the main reasons why corruption remains omnipresent in Latin America, it is clear that much can be traced back to Latin America’s colonial past and its recent authoritarian regimes.

Politically correct arguments about the continued presence of corruption in Latin America are quick to insist that since the resurgence of democracy, the rule of law and subsequent decentralisation of power in many Latin American states, government’s have began to combat corruption by trying to increase civil society involvement in decision-making and creating local government that is more responsive to local needs. However in many cases, democracy has not brought about a reduction in corruption. Unless reform takes place of governmental institutions such as the judiciary and the powers of the President, little can be expected to change.