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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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