Guest Post: What To Make of Latin America’s Wave of Anticorruption Prosecutions?

Today’s guest post is from Professor Manuel Balan of the McGill University Political Science Department:

There seems to be a surge in corruption prosecutions of current or former presidents throughout in Latin America (see, for example, here, here, and here). In the last year we have seen sitting or former presidents prosecuted for corruption in Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. In Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned from the presidency amid corruption probes, and the last three former presidents are either facing trial or serving time for corruption. Argentina may soon join this list as a result of the so-called “Notebook Scandal,” which has triggered a fast-moving investigation that has already snared 11 businessmen and one public official, and is getting closer to former President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (Argentina’s former vice-president Amado Boudou was also sentenced to almost six years in prison for corruption in a separate case.) Indeed, it now seems that Latin American presidents are almost certain to be prosecuted for corruption at some point after leaving office, if not before. My colleagues and I have documented the growing trend of prosecution of former chief executives in the region since democratization in the 1980s: Out of all presidents who started their terms in the 1980s, 30% were prosecuted for corruption. Of those that entered office in the 1990s, 52% were or are being currently prosecuted for corruption. In the group of presidents that began their terms in the 2000s, 61% underwent prosecution for corruption. And, remarkably, 10 out of the 11 presidents elected since 2010 who have finished their mandates either have been or are currently being prosecuted for corruption.

The explanation for this trend is not entirely clear. It’s probably not that Latin American presidents have become more corrupt. Some have suggested that the uptick in corruption prosecutions is a reaction, by the more conservative legal establishment, against Latin America’s “Left Turn.” But the trend towards increased prosecution is hardly limited to the region’s self-identified leftist leaders; in fact, left and non-left leaders are nearly equally likely to be prosecuted for corruption. Part of the explanation might have something to do with changes in prosecutorial and judicial institutions, media, or public expectations—the reasons are still unclear, and likely vary from country to country. Whatever the explanation, is this trend something to celebrate? Some observers say yes, arguing that the anticorruption wave sweeping Latin America is the result of Latin American citizens, fed up with corruption and taking to the streets in protest, putting pressure on institutions to investigate and punish corrupt politicians.

While I wish I could share this optimism, I think it’s likely misplaced. Continue reading

Brazil’s “Clean Slate” Law Keeps Lula Off Ballot — Now Let’s Smear His Prosecutors

Brazil’s top electoral court ruled Friday, August 5 (here), that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, now serving a 12-year sentence for accepting a bribe, cannot stand as a candidate in Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections.  “Lula,” as he is universally known, was to be the candidate of one of Brazil’s major parties, and if pre-election polls are to be believed, he stood a very good chance of winning, setting up the unusual (to say the least) situation of a head of state governing from a jail cell.  Absent a last-minute reversal by Brazil’s Supreme Court, Lula will now sit out the election in jail and the threat Brazil’s government will be run by a convict is over.

Lula’s supporters claim he is a political prisoner and is being unfairly denied the right to run for president.   In doing so, they have glossed over the extraordinary protections the Brazilian legal system has afforded him, both in his effort to overturn his conviction and to run for office.  Having failed in the courts of law, they are now trying to smear the prosecution in the court of public opinion.  A report from a well-placed source in Brazil — Continue reading

Will Brazilians Elect Their Own Donald Trump?

Will Brazil get its own Donald Trump? Brazil’s next election is right around the corner (the campaign starts August 16, and first round elections are October 2) but currently Jair Bolsonaro—a right wing, pro-gun rights, anti-gay firebrand who has proudly branded himself the “next Donald Trump”—is polling first among eligible candidates, trailing only former president Lula Inácio de Silva—who as of now is not actually allowed to run due to his conviction on corruption charges—and the “null option” (that is, none-of-the-above). What explains Bolsonaro’s appeal? In large part, the issue of corruption. Revelations of graft and bribery have continued to pile up in Brazil over the last few years—most notably (though not exclusively) in connection with the so-called Car Wash investigation of corruption in Brazil’s state-owned oil company, which may have involved upwards of $5 billion in stolen public funds. These corruption scandals have already led to the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff, criminal charges against the current President Michel Temer, and the conviction and imprisonment of former President Lula. Given all this, it’s little wonder that in a recent poll, corruption was ranked as the most important issue for 62% of Brazilian citizens.

Much as Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp,” Bolsonaro has centered his campaign on the issue of corruption. He asserts that he is the only candidate in the election who has not engaged in some form of corruption or white collar crime. Of the five major presidential candidates, he’s the only one who is not either from a major party that has been mired in a recent corruption scandal, or been part of a coalition with one of those tainted parties. (Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party) is small, barely present at the national level, and he is advertising his status as a political outsider as one of his appeals.) Thus Bolsonaro has presented himself as the only candidate who will usher in a new, less corrupt era for Brazil.

This places some Brazilian voters who care deeply about corruption in a difficult situation. Many Brazilians may feel like their only alternative to perpetuating a corrupt system is to take a gamble on a disruptive figure like Bolsonaro. Indeed, at a recent campaign event, supporters cited his aggressive anticorruption and anti-crime stances as the principal reasons why they were planning to vote for him. Diehard supporters aside, it’s possible that some Brazilian voters who are not totally comfortable with Bolsonaro might nevertheless be swayed by his outsider persona and his aggressive attacks on Brazil’s current political class. For those who have followed U.S. politics over the past few years, this probably sounds disturbingly familiar—and indeed seems to fit into a now-recognizable pattern, also manifested in the Philippines’ 2016 election of populist, zero-tolerance Duterte. It’s precisely that similarity that should, and I hope will, give these on-the-fence Brazilian voters pause. Continue reading

Guest Post: Should Corruption Prosecutors Tweet? The Brazilian Example

Today’s guest post is from Victor Rodrigues, a researcher at the FGV School of Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

How openly should prosecutors investigating corruption or other high-level wrongdoing be about their activities and their views on the larger public policy questions that their investigations implicate? As has been discussed on this blog before, there is a longstanding debate on this issue, and considerable variation across countries. The United States represents one approach, in which federal prosecutors are exceedingly discreet and tight-lipped. Consider the fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, leading the high-profile investigation into possible wrongdoing by the Trump campaign, barely speaks in public.

Brazil seems to be going in a different direction. Not only does the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office have verified accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but many of the individual prosecutors are also active on social media. Perhaps the most prominent example in Brazil is Deltan Dallagnol, the federal prosecutor coordinating the Car Wash Investigation (Lava Jato). Mr. Dallagnol has used his verified account to tweet over seven thousand times, and many of his posts mention Lava Jato cases.

While we can’t know for sure what impact these tweets have had, it’s unlikely that an account with almost half a million followers would have no impact at all. I imagine that for many readers, for example, those from the United States or countries with similar traditions regarding prosecutorial (non-)communication with the public, Mr. Dallagnol’s Twitter presence might be disconcerting, perhaps troubling. But in the context of a country like Brazil, these tweets, and prosecutorial openness more generally, are likely to have a positive impact not only on specific corruption cases but also on the development of legal and democratic institutions. In particular, this widespread use of social media by Lava Jato prosecutors can have three beneficial effects:

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Guest Post–Assessing Corruption with Big Data

Today’s guest post is from Enestor Dos Santos, principal economist at BBVA Research.

Ascertaining the actual level of corruption is not easy, given that it is usually a clandestine activity, and much of the available data is not comparable across countries or across time. Survey data on corruption experience can be helpful, but it is often limited to very specific kinds of corruption (such as petty bribery). Researchers and analysts have therefore, quite reasonably, tended to rely on subjective corruption perception data, such as Transparency International’s well-known Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). (The CPI aggregates corruption perception data from a variety of other sources, mostly expert assessments.) But conventional corruption perception measures (including those use to construct the CPI) have well-known problems, including limited coverage (with respect to both years and countries) and relatively low frequency (usually annual). And they rely on the perceptions of a handful of experts, which may not necessarily be representative. These limitations mean that while traditional perception measures like the CPI may be useful for some purposes, they are not as helpful for others, such as measuring the impact of individual events or news reports on corruption perceptions, or how changes in corruption perceptions affect government approval ratings.

To address these concerns, a recent study by BBVA Research, entitled Assessing Corruption with Big Data, offered an alternative, complementary type of corruption perceptions measure, based on Google web searches about corruption. To construct this index, we examined all web searches classified by Google Trends in the “Law and Government” category for individual countries, and calculated the proportion of those searches that contain the word “corruption” (in any language and including its misspellings and synonyms). Our index, which begins in 2004, covers more than 190 countries and, unlike traditional corruption indicators, is available in real-time and with high-frequency (monthly). Moreover, it can be reproduced very easily and at very low cost.

Here are some of our main findings: Continue reading

How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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Is the West Being Too Critical of Corruption in Ukraine? The Debate Continues

A couple weeks back I posted a commentary on an interesting debate over the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption in Ukraine. On the one side, Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that assists international clients with government relations in Ukraine) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers) published a piece arguing that the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption was misguided, for two reasons: First, because (according to the authors) there was too much focus on punishing individual wrongdoers rather than on institutional reform, and second because the emphasis on the failings of the Ukrainian government (and the wrongdoing of individual Ukrainian officials) was undermining a reformist government, and would likely lead Ukrainian voters to embrace populist demagogues. On the other side, Daria Kaleniuk (the executive director of a Ukrainian civil society organization called the Anti-Corruption Action Center) countered that the only reason the Ukrainian government has made any progress on anticorruption reforms is because of pressure from the West, and that holding individual wrongdoers accountable is essential to making progress on this issue and restoring the faith of the Ukrainian people in the institutions of government.

My own take was that Ms. Kaleniuk is likely correct that individual accountability, though not sufficient, is a necessary component of an effective anticorruption strategy; Karatnycky and Motyl’s implicit argument that Ukraine could make headway on the corruption problem without an effective system for holding individual wrongdoers accountable, as long as the country pursues “institutional reforms” (like privatization and de-monopolization), struck me as both facially implausible and inconsistent with what we know about successful anticorruption reforms elsewhere. Karatnycky and Motyl’s second point, about “messaging,” struck me as harder. On the one hand, it’s true that emphasizing only problems and failures and shortcomings might breed cynicism, frustration, and possibly political instability. But on the other hand, exposing corruption may be the only way (or at least the most effective way) to mobilize public opinion to address some very real problems.

I probably wouldn’t have returned to this topic (about which, I can’t repeat enough, I lack genuine expertise), but Mr. Karatnycky and Professor Motyl published a rejoinder to Ms. Kaleniuk last week that I think merits further commentary. The new piece makes a number of separate points, and I won’t touch on all of them. But if I had to sum up their central argument, it would go like this:

Don’t be too critical of the ruling elites—even if those elites are pretty corrupt, and even if the only reason they’ve done much of anything about corruption in the past is because they’ve been pressured or shamed or coerced into doing so. If you’re too mean to them, they might lose the support of the people—and what comes next might be much worse.

That summary, which I admit is a bit of a caricature, might seem unfair. But I don’t think it is. Indeed, I not only think it’s an accurate distillation of Karatnycky and Motyl’s main argument, but I actually think that it’s an argument worth taking seriously, and in some circumstances might even be right. But I’m skeptical it’s right in most cases, and I remain to be convinced that it’s right about Ukraine. Under most conditions, I think it’s probably wrongheaded and dangerous to say that we shouldn’t criticize a government for failing to tackle corruption or try to expose the corruption of individual politicians out of a concern that doing so might undermine the legitimacy of the government.

So, before I proceed, let me make clear that my caricature—“Don’t say mean things about the kinda-corrupt-but-kinda-reformist incumbents”—really is a fair distillation of the argument. Here the key passages from Karatnycky and Motyl’s most recent piece: Continue reading