Latin America Leans Clean

Electing leftists isn't as critical as fighting corruption

Oh, what a decade of stagnation can do. With all the conformity of a flock of birds turning left, South American voters in recent elections have turned away politicians who had pushed open-market policies in the 1990s. Last week, that regional trend was solidified with the inauguration of a leftist president in Uruguay, a doctor named Tabare Vazquez who promises to cure poverty.

Now, with this electoral veering, three-quarters of South Americans are governed by parties offering more social services and a stronger government hand in the economy - albeit with more pragmatic regard for market realities than leftist leaders of decades past.

But this popular backlash against what's called "neoliberal" economics may really be misplaced.

The open-market policies pushed on the region by the United States and the International Monetary Fund did suppress the inflation that had ravaged South America and led to sell-offs of inefficient state enterprises. At the same time, promises of high economic growth, reduced poverty, and less income inequality weren't really fulfilled.

In the narrow debate between left and right economics, the right took it on the chin. Voters flew to the left, more out of political exasperation than nostalgic embrace.

Anticorruption campaign

But something else is happening in South America these days that may have a better chance of boosting lackluster economies: a regionwide campaign against official corruption.

The art of stealing in high places is well practiced in these countries. A 2003 survey by the World Economic Forum of business leaders found that seven of the 10 countries with consistently high measures of political corruption are in Latin America. And within the region, 90 percent of people in a UN survey said they believe graft is worsening; many see corruption as their nations' biggest problem.

Countries that effectively address corruption and improve the rule of law can quadruple their national incomes, the World Bank claims. Corruption's worst effects are a dangerous erosion in popular respect for democracy and a scaring off of foreign investors and traders.

So, what's being done about bribery and other forms of graft?

For one, more politicians are giving at least lip service in campaign speeches to the need to battle corruption. More civic groups and journalists are demanding transparency in government and exposing crooked politicians.

In 1996, during the height of open-market economics, the problem became more evident. That led to an international pact called the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, which laid out specific remedies for nations to follow, such as toughening legal and accounting procedures.

The US, worried that such corruption might not only lead to a backlash against democracy but also abet anti-US terrorists, has provided millions in aid for anticorruption programs. It's also tried to deny sanctuary to foreign corrupt officials and their assets, while working to disrupt money-laundering regimes. The post-Sept. 11 reforms, especially the Patriot Act, have helped spot corrupt cash flows.

High-profile examples

Some high-profile graft probes have helped, too. Two years ago, former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán was sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption. Last year, former President Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala and several of his officials were charged with embezzlement. Former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez had to step down last October as head of the region's most prominent group, the Organization of American States (OAS), to face allegations of corruption in his country.

Rather than resigning themselves to this long-entrenched problem, the people of Latin America must demand that their officials be held accountable. Just as democracy returned to the region during the 1980s, now is the time for clean government.

One important move not yet made in many countries is to remove laws that grant immunity to elected officials. And the OAS should start to ostracize countries with the worst corruption records, the way it does for undemocratic behavior.

Once official corruption is not seen as inevitable, eradicating it will quickly follow.

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