Latin America’s sweeping anti-corruption broom

From Brazil to Mexico, a rising middle class is driving efforts to ensure honest governance, reflecting a global trend toward ‘ethical universalism.’

AP Photo
Demonstrators in Brazil fill Paulista Avenue during a protest demanding the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff March 13. The president faces impeachment proceedings over alleged fiscal mismanagement with the country in the throes of the worst recession in decades and amid a sprawling investigation into corruption at the state-run oil giant Petrobras.

In her latest book on corruption, “The Quest for Good Governance,” Berlin-based professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi writes that the demand for honest and fair leaders has never been greater, especially since 2010 when social media really began to enable activists. It is not difficult to spot this trend in Latin America, a corner of the world where integrity in government was once least expected.

In the past three years, anti-corruption movements have turned politics upside down in Brazil, Mexico, and Guatemala. And to a degree, surprising election results in Argentina and Venezuela, driven in part by a popular desire for clean governance, have altered the course of those nations. These examples are ricocheting across Latin America’s 626 million people.

This crackdown on corruption, notes Americas Quarterly magazine, will be one of the region’s most important changes in the 21st century: “It will strengthen democracies. It will make the business world more transparent, and more open to new players.

“And it will help reduce poverty and inequality, as the billions of dollars lost to graft every year are redirected toward the neediest.”

Across Latin America, citizen expectations have risen in the past 20 years as democracy and economies have expanded. For the first time, the middle class now outnumbers those living in poverty, bringing demands for independent judiciaries and greater transparency and accountability.

People are also putting less faith in personal leaders and greater emphasis on systems of checks and balances. “Constitutions are more reliable than caudillos,” says Roger Noriega, a former US diplomat for the region.

Building a critical mass against corruption still remains difficult. Mexico passed important anti-graft laws last year, but the implementation of the measures seems stalled. Brazil has seen dozens of politicians and businesspeople caught up in a major scandal involving the state oil company, Petrobras, but with little structural change so far. In contrast, Guatemala’s anti-corruption efforts saw one president driven from office and a new one elected on a platform for clean governance.

Ms. Mungiu-Pippidi writes that societies where integrity is becoming the norm begin to embrace what she calls “ethical universalism.” Values such as honesty become well embedded, people share common purposes, voluntary groups work to better society, and civic engagement through media and the ballot box becomes stronger.

“The demand for good governance is on the rise,” she states, “but the capacity of long-term collective action in favor of new rules of the game is bound to vary greatly across these countries.” Latin America, perhaps more than any other region, is the place to watch this global shift toward honest governance.

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