Corrupt leaders just keep going down

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He who said “a fish rots from the head down” probably had Latin American presidents in mind. On the surface, the region appears democratically stable. But widespread corruption among its chief executives undermines accountability and public faith. 

The public often votes for reform but ends up disappointed. Sometimes, frustrated by greedy elites, they back a demagogue like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who then makes corruption much worse. Nevertheless, recent regional support for left-wing leaders — all the major countries in Central and South America now have or are about to have leftist governments — probably originates with public disgust for high-level corruption.

Reformers face an uphill struggle. Weak legal systems make corruption hard to clean up. In 2020, an index created by the Americas Society suggested the region’s anti-corruption reforms were slipping. Recently, a State Department official identified corruption as a root cause of the migration streaming to the United States. In some places, corruption operates on an industrial scale, especially in those countries that supply or serve as transit routes for illegal drugs. 

Coup attempt foiled

Still, events this week offer some glimmers of hope. The recent take-down of some major politicians are positive signs that, even for Latin America’s rich and powerful, corruption is getting harder to get away with.

Hugo Chavez delivers a speech during a gathering held as part of his electoral campaign in Vargas on Aug. 31, 2012.
The public sometimes supports a demagogue like Hugo Chavez out of frustration with greedy elites.
AFP via Getty Images

In Peru, this week’s removal of President Pedro Castillo for attempting a coup against the nation’s legislature is the most recent example. The Congress — an impeachment-happy institution, to be sure — had been attempting to try him on corruption charges. Castillo tried to dissolve Congress to stop it. Having lost nearly all his congressional support, Castillo was removed from office and arrested. Now his vice president, Dina Boluarte, has taken charge. 

In Argentina, the court conviction of Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — the country’s shadow president, according to some observers — on significant fraud charges probably will lead to jail time and could prevent her from taking over as president again. Allegedly she steered contracts worth nearly $1 billion to a friend. 

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a press conference at the transitional government building in Brasilia on Dec. 2, 2022.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sentenced to jail in 2019 before being re-elected as president in October.
AFP via Getty Images

Even in hard-pressed Guatemala, we see some headway. This week a Guatemalan court sentenced former President Otto Perez to 16 years in prison for graft. 

Narco politics

Some countries are pretty far gone, like Honduras, where the term “narco-state” is not out-of-bounds. Even so, in April, the Drug Enforcement Administration extradited former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez to the US to face drug trafficking charges. He’s the first president in the region nabbed for drug trafficking since Panama’s infamous Manuel Noriega in 1992. 

Juan Orlando Hernandez is escorted by Members of the Police Special Forces to be extradited to the US to face charges of taking bribes from drug traffickers at Honduran National Directorate of Special Forces on April 21, 2022 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
The DEA extradited Juan Orlando Hernandez to the US for drug trafficking charges in April.
Getty Images

But is current President Xiomara Castro, whose husband, former President Jose Manuel Zelaya, may have been associated with the same drug traffickers, likely to clean things up? 

The United States sometimes acts effectively against egregious offenders like Hernandez. But on promoting deeper reforms, we often can’t do much more than talk a good game. Last year, Vice President Kamala Harris extravagantly promised to “root out corruption, wherever it exists.” The Biden administration’s $4 billion pledge to tackle corruption in the region so far has yielded meager results, especially since we need these governments’ cooperation on many issues, including immigration. 

Unfortunately, the region’s wins against corruption too often slide backward. In Brazil, the sweeping “Car Wash” corruption investigation, which revealed widespread corruption during the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Labor Party successor, led to his conviction and jail sentence in 2019 for taking kickbacks. But in October Lula was re-elected president. 

Michael J. Ard teaches intelligence studies for Johns Hopkins University and is a former deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Western Hemisphere.

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