As corruption goes in Latin America, it amounted to small beans, but the excess that ended the Uruguayan vicepresident’s career this month shows the region’s politics are still locked in a cycle of sleaze.
Despite increased public awareness of political corruption, tougher laws and smarter investigative journalism, Latin American politics are tainted by the culture of the backhander, analysts say.
“Unfortunately, corruption has been part of the political DNA of Latin America for many years,” said Chilean corruption analyst Raúl Ferro.
Vice-President Raúl Sendic’s alleged misappropriations of public funds amounted to just a few thousand dollars spent over a five-year period. But the controversy raged for months in Uruguay before he was finally forced to step down on September 9. He allegedly used a company credit card to buy jewellery, electronics and even a pair of swimming shorts while he was chairman of Uruguay’s state oil company ANCAP.
Former president José “Pepe” Mujica downplayed the controversy, however, pointing to what he called major league sleaze in neighbouring Brazil and Argentina. “Now, look, in Brazil they have bags of cash, next door nuns are throwing around bags of money, and meanwhile we are discussing boxer shorts? Have some perspective, please.”
Mujica’s reference to nuns comes from the 2016 scandal here, when former government minister José López was arrested after throwing dozens of bags of cash, containing almost US$9 million, over the wall of a Buenos Aires convent.
In Brazil, an ex-minister in President Michel Temer’s government was jailed this month after the discovery of US$16 million stuffed into suitcases in an apartment bearing his fingerprints.
Ferro, an analyst with the Chilean Centre for the Openness and Development of Latin America (Cadal) believes this sort of corruption is just the tip of the iceberg, even if “today there is less tolerance of scandal.”
Latin American society now “has a more critical vision,” said Ferro, although it must contend with “a wider spread of corruption cases.”
Adolfo Garcé, a political scientist at Montevideo’s University of the Republic, believes politicians are coming under closer scrutiny from a better educated public and press. “In the case of Uruguay, there is more investigative journalism than before. It’s more professional, less influenced by political parties, and benefits from new laws facilitating access to information.”
Sendic was rumbled when journalists used the law to access public information to examine his use of a company credit card when he was head of ANCAP.
Latin American politicians are now facing a more educated and demanding middle class and social networks that facilitate mobilisation, but also a more aggressive judicial system.
The perfect example is Brazil, according to Gaspard Estrada, director of the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean at the Sciences Po university in Paris. In Brazil “justice plays a central role in the political game,” Estrada says.
Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been sentenced to more than nine years in prison after being convicted of taking bribes – although he remains free on appeal – as newly emboldened prosecutors go after the top echelons of power. And Temer has been indicted on corruption charges for the second time in a year.
“Does all this mean the country is less corrupt?” asks Estrada. “Unfortunately, I don’t think so.”
“It is no use talking about the revival of practices, of an awareness of the political actors. We realize that more than 10 years after the Mensalão [a 2005 graft scandal linking politics and business], the practices of kickbacks and suitcases of money continues.”
He cited the example of Guatemala, where in 2015, after months of demonstrations against corruption, president Otto Pérez resigned and was sent to prison. However, his successor Jimmy Morales is facing investigation over allegedly illegally financing his own presidential campaign.