The Dark Side of Righteous Anger: Talking about Corruption After Alan García’s Suicide

Two weeks ago, former Peruvian President Alan García shot himself when authorities came to arrest him on corruption charges. Garcia’s suicide provoked a diverse range of reactions. Among these, one of the most disturbing was a vulgar tweet from Major Olimpio, a right-wing Brazilian politician who tweeted: “The ex-President of Peru committed suicide upon being arrested. Hopefully this trend catches on here in Brazil. It would big a big savings for the country.” Olimpio, of course, is referring to the dozens of politicians in Brazil implicated in the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal.

Olimpio’s tweet taps into the white-hot anger and resentment that continues to sweep across Latin America in response to the revelations of high-level corruption throughout the region. That anger is understandable. Investigations growing out of the Lava Jato operation—particularly those involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying more than $800 million in bribes across 11 countries in Latin America—have exposed pervasive corruption reaching the highest levels of government. Ten former Latin American presidents (including García) have been or are currently being investigated for corruption, along with dozens of other high level officials in multiple countries, and possibly hundreds of rank-and-file officers who were a part of these schemes. But while popular fury over corruption is justified, it should never be okay to mock suicide or make implicit death threats. And while Olimpio’s tweet about García is a particularly extreme case, this sort of hostile, callous, violent rhetoric is becoming disturbingly common in the public dialogue about corruption and its perpetrators in Latin America. For example, the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his son both tweeted menacing threats to Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad, during the campaign saying that he was “nursing on the teat of corrupt politicians in jail” because he had visited a jailed politician, and that it was “good that he already knew what it was like to go to prison.” Since Brazil is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and Haddad himself had not even been accused with corruption offenses (though several of his political allies had been), these comments were deeply disturbing.

This needs to stop. The anger over corruption is understandable, and to a certain degree a healthy development, given that for so long grudging or cynical resignation was the norm. But rather than channel this anger into violent threats, everyone—especially those in positions of power—needs to temper their anger with more civility. There is a wrong way and a right way to talk about corruption. Crude violent rhetoric is the wrong way.

So what’s the right way? Let me suggest two more appropriate ways to harness the fury over corruption and channel it in a more productive direction.

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Reasons for Optimism About Latin America’s Wave of Anticorruption Prosecutions: A Response to Professor Balan

What are we to make of the ongoing wave of corruption prosecutions sweeping Latin America in the wake of the Odebrecht scandal? Many are optimistic that these prosecutions, several of which have implicated very senior political figures, including current and former presidents, signal a turning point for the region. But in a guest post last September, Professor Manuel Balan suggested that this optimism may be misplaced, for three reasons. First, he argued that the enforcement patterns suggest that anticorruption prosecutions are becoming a weaponized—that these prosecutions are being used as a political tool used to bring down opponents, and consequently they lack credibility with much of the public. Second, Professor Balan questioned whether these prosecutions would ultimately be successful in holding powerful, popular wrongdoers accountable, and he argued that these prosecutions will just take down leaders whose positions have weakened for other reasons (such as Dilma Rousseff in Brazil). Third, Professor Balan worried that these prosecutions show that judicial power is increasing at the expense of citizens’ power—that they represent an erosion of “vertical accountability.”

I remain one of the optimists. Indeed, I think that Professor Balan is far too pessimistic about the role that the current anticorruption prosecutions in Latin American can play—and to some extent have already played—in addressing the region’s longstanding corruption and impunity problems. Yet his three objections are worth taking seriously and deserve a direct response. Here’s why I don’t find any of them sufficiently persuasive to share his pessimism:

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Video: Baker Center Conference on Controlling Corruption in Latin America

A few weeks back I was lucky enough to attend a mini-conference hosted by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy entitled “A Worthy Mission: Controlling Corruption in Latin America.” The conference featured an opening keynote address by Yale Professor Susan Rose-Ackerman, with a brief response by BYU Professor Daniel Nielson, followed by two panels. The first of these panels (which I moderated) focused on anticorruption prosecutions in Latin America generally, and featured Thelma Aldana (who served as Attorney General of Guatemala from 2014-2018, and is rumored to be a likely presidential candidate), Paolo Roberto Galvao de Carvalho (a Brazilian Federal Prosecutor and member of the “Car Wash” anticorruption Task Force), and George Mason University Professor Louise Shelley. The second panel, moderated by Columbia Professor Paul Lagunes, focused more specifically on corruption control in Mexico, and featured Professor Jacqueline Peschard (former chair of Mexico’s National Anticorruption System), Claudio X. Gonzalez (the president of the civil society organization Mexicanos Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad (MCCI)), and Mariana Campos (the Program Director at another Mexican civil society organization, Mexico Evalua).

Video recordings of the conference are publicly available, so I’m going to follow my past practice of sharing the links, along with a very brief guide (with time stamps) in case anyone is particularly interested in one or more particular speakers or subjects but doesn’t have time to watch the whole thing. Here goes: Continue reading

Putting Anticorruption Up for a Vote: The Challenge of Designing Effective National Referendums

One of the biggest challenges in the fight against corruption is getting people in power to reform the very system from which they currently benefit. Over the past year, we have seen anticorruption advocates in Colombia and Peru attempt to bypass this hurdle using national popular referenda on anticorruption measures.

In Peru, the referendum on December 9, 2018 came on the heels of the massive Odebrecht scandal, which implicated all of Peru’s living former Presidents. Current President Vizcarra and his supporters originally proposed a referendum containing three anticorruption reforms: banning the immediate reelection of legislators and executives, reforming the system by which prosecutors and judges are appointed, and instituting new campaign finance regulations. The required legislative approval of the referendum took several months, and during this process the legislature added another proposal (not supported by President) to create a second legislative chamber. In the end, the three original reforms passed, and the proposed bicameral legislature failed after a successful “Yes, yes, yes, no” campaign by the President and his supporters.

Colombia’s referendum also came in response to the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal. On August 28, 2018, Colombia had a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures that aimed to improve transparency in governance, institute legislative term limits, and cut legislator pay. Six of the seven measures proposed in the referendum had previously failed in the lower house of the Colombian legislature, but 99% of voters approved all seven measures in the referendum. Though the total number of citizens voting fell just short of the quorum required for the referendum to be binding, President Duque convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018. The President proposed eight measures inspired by the referendum to the legislature, but momentum has stalled as legislators look to modify the proposals or avoid voting on them. With no clear deadline for if and when they will be passed, their fate is now uncertain.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Colombian referendum was not without its faults, specifically with respect to the inclusion of counterproductive retributive measures. More generally, while a national referendum may seem like an ideal way to bypass conflicted legislators, a referendum poses serious three risks that need to be addressed if one hopes to use this lawmaking mechanism to combat corruption:

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Top-Notch Advice from the Inter-American Development Bank on Combatting Corruption

To say I opened a copy of Report of the Expert Advisory Group on Anticorruption, Transparency and Integrity in Latin America, the Inter-American Development Bank’s latestadvice to Latin American and Caribbean governments on fighting corruption, with low expectations would be an overstatement. What specific, detailed, actionable and therefore useful measures could a report directed at 45 governments contain? Particularly given the diversity of the region’s governments, which range from prosperous, thriving middle-income democracies to desperately poor, repressive authoritarian regimes.  I thus assumed the report would follow the tiresome formula of so many previous attempts to spur developing nations to take meaningful steps to curb corruptions: a hodgepodge of obvious but vague generalizations wrapped around pleas for greater political will.

My subterranean expectations were only lowered given its institutional sponsor. Like the other regional development banks and the World Bank, the IDB exists to loan money and therefore strives to stay on the good side of the region’s governments to ensure they will continue to borrow.  In reports past from other development banks that consideration has often ruled out even the hint of politically controversial measures or criticism levelled at any government’s faltering anticorruption efforts.

The third strike against the report is its authors.  A distinguished collection of mostly Latin American “names” in the anticorruption field, all are busy experts whose main job is delivering high-profile lectures, authoring academic papers, and advising private sector entities and governments.  Devoting time and effort to an IDB publication that neither burnishes one’s academic credentials nor services clients was probably not high on their list of priorities. Most likely, I thought, they were asked to bless a precooked series of bromides assembled by interns and junior staff.

Boy, were my expectations off base.  Rather than a strike out, the report is a home run.  Or at least a stand-up triple. Continue reading

When Justifiable Anger Leads to Bad Policy: The Unintended Consequences of Colombia’s Anticorruption Referendum

Last August, Colombia held a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures. Despite the fact that six of these measures had previously been proposed in, but failed to pass out of, the lower house of the legislature, popular support for the measures was overwhelming: each measure received 99% “Yes” votes. The referendum did not pass, however, because even though more people voted “yes” on the referendum than voted for the current President, under Colombian law the referendum would only pass if a quorum of 12.1 million citizens voted, and the 11.6 million voters who turned out fell short of that number. Nonetheless, proponents of the referendum declared it a success because it has put public pressure on Colombia’s political leaders to implement these measures. And indeed, President Duque has convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018.

Is this a good idea? It’s certainly the case that Colombia needs to do more to combat corruption, which is estimated to cost Colombian taxpayers at least $17 billion a year. But it’s not clear that all of the proposed solutions, though doubtless well-intended, are good public policy. I won’t attempt a comprehensive review of all seven measures here. I’ll put to one side discussion of those measures that focus on improving transparency (for example, by publicizing government budgets, legislators’ voting records, and public officials’ tax returns and asset declarations) or on making penalties more severe (for example, requiring those convicted of corruption to serve their full sentences, and nullifying government contracts with parties convicted of corruption). Rather, I want to address two measures that target Colombian legislators: one of these measures would impose a three-term limit, while the other would substantially cut legislators’ pay.

These two measures appear to reflect understandable public anger at how legislators have abused their positions for private gain. But this retributive impulse may produce bad policy. Indeed, both term limits and salary cuts are likely to prove counterproductive in the fight against corruption in Colombia.

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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