MONTEVIDEO: As corruption goes in Latin America, it amounted to small beans, but the excess that ended the Uruguayan vice president’s career this month shows the region’s politics are still locked in a cycle of sleaze.
Despite increased public awareness of political corruption, tougher laws and smarter investigative journalism, Latin American politics are tainted by the culture of the backhander, analysts say.
“Unfortunately, corruption has been part of the political DNA of Latin America for many years,” said Chilean corruption analyst Raul Ferro.
Vice President Raul Sendic’s alleged misappropriation of public funds amounted to just a few thousand dollars spent over a five-year period. But the controversy raged for months in Uruguay before he was finally forced to step down on September 9.
He allegedly used a company credit card to buy jewelry, electronics and even a pair of swimming shorts while he was chairman of Uruguay’s state oil company ANCAP.
Revered leftist ex-president Jose Mujica downplayed the controversy, pointing to what he called major league sleaze in Uruguay’s neighbors Brazil and Argentina.
“Now, look, in Brazil they have bags of cash, next door nuns are throwing around bags of money, and meanwhile we are discussing boxer shorts? Have some perspective, please.”
Mujica’s reference to nuns comes from a 2016 scandal in neighboring Argentina, when a former minister was arrested after throwing dozens of bags of cash, containing almost $9 million, over the wall of a Buenos Aires convent.
In Brazil, an ex-minister in President Michel Temer’s government was jailed this month after the discovery of $16 million stuffed into suitcases in an apartment bearing his fingerprints.
The list of dirty money for crimes great and small goes on.
Corruption in the DNA
Ferro, an analyst with the Chilean Center for the Openness and Development of Latin America (Cadal) believes this sort of corruption is just the tip of the iceberg, even if “today there is less tolerance of scandal”.
Latin American society now “has a more critical vision,” said Ferro, although it must contend with “a wider spread of corruption cases.”
Adolfo Garce, a political scientist at Montevideo’s University of the Republic, believes politicians are coming under closer scrutiny from a better educated public and press.
“In the case of Uruguay, there is more investigative journalism than before. It’s more professional, less influenced by political parties, and benefits from new laws facilitating access to information.”
Sendic was rumbled when journalists used the law to access public information to examine his use of a company credit card when he was head of ANCAP.
Latin American politicians are now facing a more educated and demanding middle class and social networks that facilitate mobilization, but also a more aggressive judicial system.
The perfect example is Brazil, according to Gaspard Estrada, director of the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean at the Sciences Po university in Paris.
In Brazil “justice plays a central role in the political game.”
Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been sentenced to more than nine years in prison after being convicted of taking bribes— although he remains free on appeal—as newly emboldened prosecutors go after the top echelons of power. And Temer has been indicted on corruption charges for the second time in a year.
‘Suitcases of money’
“Does all this mean the country is less corrupt?” asks Estrada. “Unfortunately, I don’t think so.”
“It is no use talking about the revival of practices, of an awareness of the political actors. We realize that more than 10 years after the Mensalao, the practices of kickbacks and suitcases of money continues.”
The Mensalao was a huge corruption scandal that tainted Brazilian politics and business in 2005.
He cited the example of Guatemala, where in 2015, after months of demonstrations against corruption, President Otto Perez resigned and was sent to prison. However, his successor Jimmy Morales is facing investigation over allegedly illegally financing his own presidential campaign.
This sense of Groundhog Day “can explain to a large extent why Latin American presidents generally have such low popularity ratings,” said Estrada.
Temer’s approval ratings, as well as those of Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, are at an historic low.
Many prosecutors and experts are hopeful that key elections due in 2018 can change the flavor of Latin American politics.
Polls are on the horizon in Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.
“I hope that what’s happening now in Latin America can have a big impact on the upcoming electoral processes,” said Joe Ugaz, head of Transparency International, referring to various corruption prosecutions.
Two countries are crucial because of their influence on the wider Latin American region, Ugaz said.
“If in Mexico and Brazil people opt once again for the corrupt and the parties that represent them, the struggle will go on much longer.”