Anti-corruption movements across Latin America has been a key development in 2015, and has shaken political elites from Guatemala to Brazil. Security analyst James Bosworth breaks down how these ongoing investigations could impact regional politics.
Lots of horrific abuses of human rights and democracy happened in Latin America’s recent past. This led to a generation-long struggle to investigate, prosecute and convict the former leaders responsible for those abuses. Success varied by country, but the mere act of investigating past abuses helped promote the ideas that nobody should be above the law and institutions should hold current and former leaders accountable. This has meant the investigations and prosecutions of the current generation’s corruption scandals have been quicker and more efficient.
The above paragraph is a giant (and risky) generalization for a very diverse region. Yet, I think it will hold true over the coming decade. Corruption scandals are being prosecuted more quickly than the abuses of the past, in part because the region built institutions to investigate those past abuses and in part because the culture of the region as a whole has shifted. If the current corruption scandal you care about most hasn’t been prosecuted yet, my guess is that it will take less than ten years after a leader leaves power instead of the 20-30 it took to investigate the abuses of South America’s dirty wars and Central America’s conflicts.
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This leads to a couple of interesting points.
1) While prosecuting corruption and reducing impunity improves governance in the long term (at least in theory), it creates some serious short term political instability. The current wave of anti-corruption protests and prosecutions threatens the governability of at least a half-dozen Latin American countries, perhaps more. It has weakened leaders and made it much harder to get other necessary agenda items through the political system.
2) Leaders like Brazil’s Lula da Silva who fought hard against the military dictatorships in decades past are surprised and perhaps offended that they are being targeted for corruption investigations at a level that never existed for previous leaders. It isn’t a double standard as much as an evolving one. While there is no excuse for corruption, it is at least understandable that some leaders feel angry that a previous generation of torturers and murderers lived out their days in impunity while the current generation may face jail for skimming off the top of a budget.
3) For some leaders like the current cabal in charge of the Venezuelan government, the realization that they will likely face major corruption prosecution upon leaving power increases their incentives to hold on to power at any cost. Watching the corruption investigations play out in Guatemala, Panama and Brazil, they must know that the institutions they have undermined will no longer protect them when the opposition retakes power. Holding off that judgement day is now a goal.