The People Shout `Basta!' And Demand Honest Leaders

As economic austerity squeezes the lower and middle classes, they grow intolerant of official corruption

IN the spring and summer of 1992, Edson Miagusko daubed his face countless times with green and white paint. A student at the University of Sao Paulo, he was part of a protest movement of hundreds of thousands of ``painted faces'' that took to the streets of Brazil to demand the ouster of President Fernando Collor de Mello for his alleged role in a billion-dollar influence-peddling scheme.

Responding to the public clamor, the legislature launched an investigation, and by September, Mr. Collor was impeached.

On a warm Caracas evening in the summer of 1992, Celia Quiros flicked off the low-wattage bulbs in her humble barrio home at exactly 10 p.m. Joining thousands of others around the mountain valley of the Venezuelan capital, the mother of six banged two pots together furiously in a cacophonic citizen protest known as the caserolazo.

By May 1993, after months of riots and nationwide protests, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez was suspended from office and indicted on charges of embezzling $17.5 million in public funds.

That same month in Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian rights activist, joined forces with her political adversary, Guatemala's business elite. They had the common goal of stopping a power-grab by President Jorge Serrano Elias, who was on the verge of being investigated for misusing public funds.

By June 1993, in the face of broad opposition across Guatemalan society, Mr. Serrano's military backers had wavered, and he fled the country.

Latin American countries are experiencing unprecedented grass-roots ferment. The events in Brazil, Venezuela, and Guatemala mark the first time in the region's history that corrupt presidents have been toppled not by military coups but by angry citizens. Bolivia has recently impeached two Supreme Court judges on charges of soliciting bribes. Former Peruvian President Alan Garcia Perez has been charged with stealing $50 million from the Central Bank of Peru.

Latin Americans are crying ``Basta!'' (Enough!), demanding credible elections and honest leaders. Civic groups, opposition parties, and the media are exercising their constitutional rights.

Learning accountability

But remaking the age-old systems of political patronage and bribes requires more than ousting a few corrupt leaders. Citizens are testing the powers of democratic institutions in a way never done before. The tools are not familiar; the strength of the movement is not certain. ``Accountability,'' after all, is a word not found in the Spanish and Portuguese languages.

Latin American political scientists and Western diplomats all ask the same question about this anticorruption movement: Will the energy and support generated by these ``citizen coups'' translate into enduring reforms that fortify democratic institutions?

``Latin America today has a real chance to break the cycles of repression, dictatorship, and civil conflict that have characterized much of its history,'' says Richard Millett, a Latin America expert at Southern Illinois University.

Why are the anticorruption crusades ocurring now? Academics and diplomats say the causes vary. In many cases, the adoption of free-market economic policies - encouraged by US trade policies and international lending institutions - are a factor. As public subsidies are reduced and lower- and middle-class citizens feel the pinch, they lose tolerance for elected officials living high off the public hog.

In Venezuela, Mr. Perez's austerity plan undercut his popularity. In 1989, in accord with International Monetary Fund agreements, Perez cut public subsidies and ended price controls, sending electricity, telephone, and transportation costs soaring. Inflation shot to 89 percent. People lost jobs as inefficient state firms were sold.

The public mood soured. Perez had little political capital with which to fight allegations that he embezzled $17.5 million in government funds, Venezuelan pollsters say. His quick ouster paved the way for the victory in last December's presidential vote of anticorruption candidate Rafael Caldera.

``We are fed up,'' says Gustavo Coronel, director of Pro-Calidad de Vida (Pro Quality of Life), an anticorruption group in Caracas. ``No me la calo mas,'' he says in a uniquely Venezuelan phrase: ``Everybody draws a line at a certain time and place.'' Venezuelans say it is being drawn here and now.

Some Latin American academics see the anticorruption drive as a natural next step in the region's democratic evolution, a trend that brought a semblance of democracy to every country by the start of the 1990s. Today there's a palpable shift in attitudes. With less oppression and freer speech, more civic groups are emerging.

But levels of corruption still worry analysts such as Mr. Millet. ``One of the greatest threats to the democratic process is the high level of corruption among civilians and the military,'' Millet wrote in a 1993 paper on sustainable democracy published by the University of Miami's North-South Center. ``Corruption hinders economic growth, increases government inefficiency, undermines public confidence and support, and exacerbates problems in areas such as civil-military relations and judicial reform.''

``Accountability is one of the most important elements of a deepening democracy,'' says Paul Boeker, former US ambassador to Bolivia and director of the Institute of the Americas, a policy-research center in La Jolla, Calif.

Military as last resort

When corruption erodes confidence, the democratic movement is vulnerable to the armed forces, which still enjoy popular support in some countries and could step in.

In Venezuela, for example, polls showed that two failed coup attempts in 1992 by so-called anticorruption junior military officers had widespread public support.

In some states, if democratic institutions do not provide safeguards, the public seems willing to embrace less-democratic forms. The ``Fujimori model'' continues to be examined by the region's academics and news media as an alternative. President Alberto Fujimori ran roughshod over Peru's democracy, using corruption as his reason for dissolving the congress and judiciary. But the majority of Peruvians supported his steps.

During a ``Democracy versus Corruption'' workshop in Quito, Ecuador, last September, private and government officials from 18 Latin American countries identified four common areas of vulnerability: tax evasion, manipulation of public contracts, bribery in judicial systems, and corruption in democratic activities such as elections. To address these problems, participants assembled a list of safeguards. (See story at left.)

``Getting rich in office has traditionally been the name of the game in Latin American politics,'' says James Westbury, a coordinator of the US-funded workshop and director of the Institute of Public Administration, New York. ``It used to be that people accepted that as the price of government. They accepted it because they thought someday I can do it or maybe a friend will do it and help me get rich.''

Official impunity

A critical concern of anticorruption campaigners is that of impunity. Legislators often are entitled to immunity from prosecution by virtue of their office. And even when top officials are tried and found guilty, they often escape punishment by moving to a neighboring country.

In Brazil, for example, congressional investigations of President Collor's corruption scandal indicate Collor's campaign treasurer, set up his own representatives in state agencies to collect kickbacks and skim millions from rigged bids on public contracts. The treasurer is in jail, pending the outcome of the judicial investigation. Collor, as a first offender, may pay a fine, but probably won't do jail time, according to Brazil's attorney general.

``One of the worst aspects of Latin American democracy is the ability to go into exile,'' Westbury says. ``One country will accept another's crook. It's a gentleman's agreement.'' He points to ex-President Garcia, who now resides in Colombia. Garcia left Peru after Fujimori's 1990 election. A congressional panel that investigated allegations he stole millions concluded in August 1991 that Garcia was shifting funds out of the Central Bank into the scandal-wracked Bank of Commerce and Credit International.

``Latin America in the 1980s saw the victory of free market policies over statist policies and multiparty democracy over military rule. The `90s are going to be a decade of great victories over corruption,'' predicts Robert Klitgaard, author of the book ``Controlling Corruption'' and considered the world's leading authority on government corruption.

Mr. Klitgaard, professor at the University of Natal in South Africa, is encouraged by the fact that major politicians are being felled. ``The first step in ending corruption is to fry big fish. That sends a message to the public and officials that it won't be tolerated.''

Another positive sign, Professor Klitgaard says, is the dismantling of one-party political systems. ``The enemy of corruption is competition. Mulitparty systems reduce discretion, create oversight,'' he says. ``And when you free up the press, corruption gets more exposure.'' Klitgaard says there's more noise about corruption today in Latin America, but doubts if corruption is getting worse.

The frying of ``big fish'' is also producing some important followup adjustments to political institutions. In Guatemala, a national referendum in January gave approval for eliminating a confidential presidential fund (abused by Serrano), an annual audit of government spending, and shorter presidential and congressional terms.

The Brazilian congress, which recommended in January that 18 members be impeached for stealing public funds, is also in the midst of a constitutional reform process likely to close some loopholes, including immunity from criminal punishment.

Such historic changes are evidence that the present public outrage is providing politicians and judges with the courage to challenge some entrenched practices and fortify their nation's democratic institutions.

These changes won't prevent all future elected officials from stealing, but the latest reforms just might make enough difference, in terms of public confidence. And that seems to be a key factor in whether democracy blossoms or atrophies in Latin America.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The People Shout `Basta!' And Demand Honest Leaders
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today