A light of lawfulness in Latin America

The U.S. targets Paraguay for corruption, yet it may be grassroots efforts at affirming accountability that make the biggest difference.

Protesters march in Asuncion, Paraguay, Oct. 12., demanding an end to evictions of indigenous people from ancestral lands, often done through corruption.

Over the past four years, voters have tossed out governments in Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, and, most recently, Brazil. In each, a shift occurred from right to left. But the more meaningful trend was rising frustration with corruption.

More than 3 in 5 voters in Latin America and the Caribbean believe graft is widespread among elected officials, according to the Americas Barometer poll, and they are impatient for change. Protesters in Peru, for example, have clashed with police in recent days demanding that President Pedro Castillo resign. Elected a little over a year ago, he already faces six criminal investigations.

The next battleground is Paraguay – the second-most corrupt country in South America after Venezuela, as measured by Transparency International. Although the next presidential election there won’t take place until April, Paraguay is already becoming a testing ground for two different approaches to establishing norms of honest government.

One is based on an expectation of top-down reform. The other involves building public expectation of accountability rather than offering consent to impunity.

“Civil society must mobilize the grassroots so that citizens in general understand the importance and complete meaning of transparency,” David Riveros García, founder of ReAcción Paraguay, a youth-led anti-corruption organization, told the blog site One Young World. That includes, he says, holding corrupt officials accountable for corruption.

For Paraguay, that will be a big chore. It ranks 128 out of 180 countries in perceptions of corruption. That reflects entrenched governing habits. The country has been ruled by one party for all but a short interval during the past six decades. The advent of democracy 30 years ago did little to change that. Nor have international efforts. The Biden administration, for example, imposed sanctions in July against current and former Paraguayan officials it suspects of corruption. One of those officials is Vice President Hugo Velázquez, who remains in office.

Civil society organizations like Mr. García’s can’t rely on strictly punitive approaches. It is training the next generation to demand accountability. Students, for example, are taught how to hold school administrators and government officials accountable for the use of public education funding. His organization aims to redefine the Paraguayan identity with inspiring messages, “separating it from the current erroneous perception.”

That kind of citizen oversight requires a social contract, argues Shaazka Beyerle, a senior fellow at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University in Washington. Civil society groups can only encourage citizen engagement if they “model the norms, principles, practices, and behaviors they seek to foster in society,” she told the Global Standard for CSO Accountability.

That approach may shift the anti-corruption paradigm in Latin America, setting an example of honest governance for leaders to come.

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