Dilma Goes After Brazil’s Corruptos – Is the Rest of Latin America Following?

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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia August 16, 2011. (Photo: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)

Brazilians sardonically refer to their often corrupt public bureaucracy as O Trem de Alegria, or The Joy Train. I’ve written about a number of the train’s happy passengers over the years, including the mayor of a small working-class town near Rio de Janeiro who jobbed the system so brazenly that he earned a $264,000 annual salary – twice that of the President of Brazil at the time. But with Brazil’s economy beginning to cool down after running Amazon hot for the past decade, and with the country about to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016,  President Dilma Rousseff knows the Joy Train is a guilty (make that felonious) pleasure the South American giant can no longer afford.

So this summer Rousseff, who took office in January, has embarked on the kind of anti-corruption campaign that many wish her popular predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, had taken up during his eight years in office. After the June resignation of her chief of staff, Antonio Palocci – forced out for having amassed a millionaire’s fortune on a government paycheck three other Rousseff cabinet members have stepped down under corruption allegations, including Agriculture Minister Wagner Rossi on Thursday, Aug. 18. (He denies them.) Meanwhile, federal police recently collared more than 30 Tourism Ministry officials, including the deputy tourism minister, for alleged embezzlement. More than 20 Transport Ministry officials have quit after charges they took kickbacks.

No place is free of corruption, but Latin America is historically notorious for turning a blind eye to the rot, which drains billions of dollars from the region’s economies and makes a mockery of the democratic institutions that are critical to development. It’s a big reason that Latin America has one of the worst, if not the worst, gaps between rich and poor. The big question is whether the Brazilian busts represent a trend in the region. Today, Aug. 19, the Miami International Press Association met with Latin American representatives of the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International, and the report we got for once seemed to contain some hopeful signs amidst the harrowing shenanigans.

Transparency International is perhaps best known for its corruption perceptions index, which measures public-sector corruption on a scale of 1 (most corrupt) to 10 (least). It’s no coincidence that Latin American countries where democratic institutions have put down deeper roots – Chile, for example, or Costa Rica – scored above 5 in the most recent index. (Chile’s mark was 7.2, even better than the U.S. at 7.1, and the island of Barbados, at 7.8, was the least corrupt in Latin America and the Caribbean. Denmark was No. 1 overall at 9.3) But it’s also encouraging to see that of the 25 countries from the region listed in the 178-nation index, 14 were among the least corrupt 50%. What’s more, Transparency’s newest global corruption barometer shows that while 56% of citizens in the Balkans and Turkey, 36% in the Middle East and North Africa and 32% in newly independent states like Ukraine reported having to pay bribes, only 23% said they had in Latin America.

(See “Why Chile is Better Than Haiti at Handling Earthquakes”)

That doesn’t mean Latin America is out of the corruption woods – especially with violent drug cartels suborning governments like Mexico’s and Guatemala’s, warns Transparency’s Guatemalan chapter, Acción Ciudadana (Citizen Action). Brazil’s index score is still a lackluster 3.7, and Mexico’s is worse at 3.1. (A Transparency study shows that for every 10 pesos, or almost $1 US, that a working-class Mexican family earns, almost a third of it goes to bribes to figures like cops and telephone utility workers.) Transparency’s Americas director, Alejandro Salas, also worries that the recent economic boom Latin American countries have experienced could make the region more complacent about corruption. “It’s the ‘resource curse,’” says Salas. “When governments have more means to improve people’s lives, people tend to be less concerned about the increased risk of corruption that comes with all the new money.”

Argentina, which scored only 2.9 on the Transparency index, may be a prime example, says Transparency’s chapter there, Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power). But in Peru, which saw 8.8% economic growth last year, citizens actually are concerned, says Cecilia Blondet, director of the Lima-based watchdog Proética (Pro-Ethics). “It’s the central theme of our lives right now,” says Blondet, who is pressing the new Ollanta Humala Administration to create an anti-corruption organ in Peru’s government in the wake of oil contract scandals that plagued the presidency of Humala’s predecessor, Alan García.

But the biggest corruption worries involve oil-rich Venezuela, which scored 2.0, the worst in the western hemisphere, and placed 164th out of 178 countries overall. The irony, of course, is that socialist President Hugo Chávez took power 12 years ago pledging to clean up what was already one of the most corrupt countries in the Americas. (One of the best-selling books there in the years leading up to his election was the three-volume Diccionario de la Corrupción en Venezuela.) Yet the combination of epic oil wealth and what critics call Chávez’s subordination of democratic institutions like the judiciary has made his Bolivarian Revolution ripe for abuse. “The [corruption] cases appear in the media,” says Mercedes de Freitas, director of the Caracas-based watchdog Transparencia Venezuela, “but there is scant official institutional presence to pursue them.”

Increasing that presence takes political will, which in too many Latin American countries has too often been run over by the Joy Train. If Rousseff can put the brakes on that locomotive in Latin America’s largest economy, say the watchdogs, it could put more pressure on her neighbors to do the same.