Guest Post: Expert Interviews on Corruption Control in Latin America

Today’s guest post is from Columbia University Professor Paul Lagunes, who this year is also a Visiting Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy:

Elections in Latin America are freer and fairer than they used to be, and, with rare exceptions, political power in the region is no longer monopolized by a single individual, junta, or party. From Chile to Mexico, legal reforms have promoted higher levels of government transparency and citizen participation. But in spite of these improvements, the region continues to grapple with systemic corruption. Not only are individuals asked to pay bribes by lower-level government officials, but scandals such as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) in Brazil, La Estafa Maestra (“The Master Fraud”) in Mexico, and La Línea (“The Line”) in Guatemala have revealed grand corruption at the most senior levels, making the fight against corruption a top priority for the region.

Prompted by these concerns, I contributed to organizing a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on corruption control in Latin America, which has already been featured (with links to the conference videos) on this blog. Some of the conference panelists stayed long enough that we were able to interview them about their important work. Tony Payan, my colleague at the Baker Institute and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, agreed to conduct the interviews.

The videos of these interviews are now publicly available, and are well worth viewing for those interested in hearing a diverse range of perspectives on the corruption challenges currently facing Latin America. In this post I will provide links to the interviews as well as a brief summary of their content. (There’s also an online website, where you can find all the interviews, here.)

  • The first interview (here) is with Thad Dunning, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Most of Professor Dunning’s interview centers around a unique and ambitious project on accountability that he helped oversee alongside other members of the Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP) group. The project (known as Metaketa I) builds on six field experiments conducted in developing countries around the world, including Mexico and Brazil. In these field experiments, voters were provided with information about the performance of their political representatives prior to an election, and the research question was how providing this sort of information would affect voters’ ability to hold their representatives accountable. The results were disheartening. In Dunning’s words, “Voters, even when they learn new information about malfeasance, were quite reluctant to change their vote.” But rather than dwell on the disappointing finding, Professor Dunning reminds us that lessons about what does not work in promoting accountability are often as important as lessons about what does work.
  • The next interview (here), with Professor Dan Nielson of Brigham Young University, also focuses on an important field experiment. This experiment, described in Professor Nielson’s book (coauthored with Professors Jason Sharman and Michael Findley) Global Shell Games, sheds light on the shady practices surrounding anonymous shell corporations. More specifically, the experiment tested the extent to which corporate service providers (firms that help clients create companies) screen high-risk customers, including would-be money launderers, corrupt officials, and terrorist financiers, who seek to incorporate anonymous shell companies. This is important because shell companies are often used to launder dirty money. The experiment found that many of these corporate service providers seemed all too happy to form anonymous companies even for people who seemed obviously criminal.
  • On the subject of dirty money, the third interview (here) features Professor Louise Shelley, who founded and directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center at George Mason University. Professor Shelley’s interview focuses on illicit trade, which, she explains, “consists of both […] illegal trade, like human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and also many forms of commerce that are not as easily identifiable, for example, counterfeit goods.” Professor Shelley reflects on the conceptual link between illicit trade and corruption, as well as several other topics, including the role that illicit trade plays in Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela.
  • The next interview (here) features Paolo Galvão, a federal prosecutor in Brazil who serves as one of the coordinating members or the Lava Jato Task Force. After a brief overview of the Lava Jato scandal, Mr. Galvão’s turns to the reasons why corruption should be treated as a national priority in Brazil. Galvão also offers a defense of the Task Force’s efforts, before listing some of the factors needed to ensure Brazil’s corruption control efforts achieve long-term success.
  • Turning the fifth interview (here), Mariana Campos is program director at México Evalúa, a Mexican think tank that evaluates and monitors public policy. During her interview, Ms. Campos explains that much of México Evalúa’s work involves overseeing the country’s various budgets from the moment they are approved to the moment they are expended. On a related subject, she describes some troubling issues with how federal funds are handled, and underscores the need for greater oversight.
  • The sixth interview (here) is of Claudio X. Gonzalez, the co-founder and president of Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MCCI). Mr. Gonzalez begins the interview by suggesting that corruption and impunity are two of Mexico’s most pressing problems. As he puts it, “The rule of law is very fragile in Mexico, if it exists at all…. We have to build the institutions that will create incentives that will bring about a culture of legality in Mexico.” With this in mind, Mr. Gonzalez describes some of MCCI’s anticorruption work, which involves both investigative journalism and applied research. He also discusses the attacks that he and other MCCI members have received because of MCCI’s work, and he concludes the interview by describing reasons for believing that Mexico is not condemned to maintain the corrupt status quo.
  • Last but not least, I want to spotlight the interview (here) with Matthew Stephenson, Professor at Harvard Law School and editor-in-chief of this blog. After describing his own background in this area, including the story behind the creation of this blog, Professor Stephenson discusses the 2012 Wal-Mart scandal that originated in Mexico. He then proceeds to offer some impressions on where Mexico country is headed under the leadership of President Lopez Obrador. It is during this part of the interview that he shares the following memorable quote:

I think that the Mexican public seems fed up with corruption and really wants a change. And that’s no small thing, because in many countries where corruption is widespread, even if people don’t like it, a lot of times people have this cynical or fatalist attitude that there’s nothing that can be done about it. Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, it’s just in our culture.’ Or, ‘It’s just the way things are done.’ And that attitude can be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. If people believe there’s nothing that can be done about corruption, then nothing will be done about corruption. They just accept it as a way of life….

Finally, Professor Stephenson brings the interview to a close by discussing some of his recent research, including work looking at whether democracy can actually serve to control corruption and on the extent to which corruption begets more corruption.

These video interviews are a resource for anyone interested in the subject of corruption control in Latin America. They convey the views held by an impressive group of experts and practitioners. Taken together, these views should dispel the idea that corruption cannot be studied or confronted.

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