Latin America gets a scrubbing

Peru becomes the latest country to see a leader taken down by corruption scandal.  It will also soon host a regional summit. The theme: clean governance.

AP Photo
A demonstrator in Lima, Peru, holds a sign that reads in Spanish "Let them all go," during a protest against the country's political class, a day after the March 21 resignation of Peru's President Pedro Pablo Kuczynsk.

In mid-April, leaders of the Western Hemisphere, including President Trump, are due to meet at a summit with the theme “democratic governance against corruption.”

The host nation, Peru, will have much to offer on that topic.

Last week the Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned over corruption charges. He was forced out by crusading prosecutors, aggressive journalists, and a rising middle class that wants honesty and transparency in their elected leaders. The new president, Martin Vizcarra, vowed to deal with corruption “at any cost.”

“Don’t lose faith in our institutions,” pleaded Mr. Vizcarra, the former vice president who has a relatively clean reputation. “Let us show you that Peru is bigger than its problems.”

Peruvians are indeed “bigger” in making demands for clean governance. The disapproval rating of Peru’s Congress is 81 percent. And almost all of the country’s leading politicians and former presidents have been linked to a scandal sweeping much of Latin America. Construction giant Odebrecht of Brazil has confessed to paying bribes or giving illegal campaign money to politicians in at least eight countries from Argentina to Mexico.

The mass exposure of corruption, which began in 2014 with Brazil’s probe of contract rigging at its state-run oil company Petrobras, has led to reforms in several countries and other actions that suggest the region wants to tighten up the rule of law and end a culture of impunity.

Companies are beefing up their anti-corruption efforts, for example, by hiring more “risk compliance” officials. And more citizens, now aware of how bribery influences infrastructure projects, are holding officials to account for government spending.

“[M]any countries have taken important and public steps to acknowledge and address the scandal,” said David Malpass, undersecretary for international affairs at the United States Treasury in February. “If the public reckoning taking place in several countries helps lead to stronger checks and balances, it will ultimately strengthen democratic foundations.” Any strengthening of institutions against corruption, he added, will require the “integrity and the faith of the public.”

Such public sentiment is reflected in a 2017 survey by the watchdog group Transparency International. The poll found 70 percent of people in the region say they are willing to get involved in fighting corruption.

At the coming Summit of the Americas, all the world may witness how much leaders in the region are responding to the Odebrecht scandal – and to people’s demands for openness and equality before the law in governance.

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