Is the fight against corruption in the Southern Cone biased?

Is the fight against corruption in the Southern Cone biased?

Sergio Moro, the Brazilian judge in the Lava Jato case, who revealed a continental web of bribery, was presented as an exemplary leader in the fight against corruption by Laura Alonso, head of Argentina’s Anti-corruption Unit. In both countries, the opposition complains of a partisan bias in the fight against corruption.

The scene: the conservative politician mentions “her”. It triggers an angry buzz in the audience, they are seething. Some of them insult her, they call her corrupt, they demand she goes to prison.

A North American reader could see “her” as Hillary Clinton. But a Chilean would see “her” as their current president, Michelle Bachelet. For a Brazilian, she would be Dilma Rousseff, ousted in 2016. And for an Argentinean, Cristina Kirchner, president until 2015.

The first women to be elected president in the Southern Cone have sparked no less resistance or suspicion than the US presidential candidate. They are all considered more progressive then their adversaries, future or current presidents, who themselves are facing their own accusations of corruption, although the men seemed to have suffered fewer consequences.

Some people believe that gender plays a role in this resistance. In the Kirchner case, “Colourful psychological disorders have been attributed to her, which is less common with male presidents. The attack on her psychology has a whiff of gender [bias]. And with Rousseff there was much talk about the machista dimension of her impeachment,” Marcelo Ramella, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, tells Equal Times.

In other words, for the conservative opponents of “progressive women presidents”, gender could be an “aggravating factor”.

Josué Tapia Valles, cultural anthropologist, points out similarities beyond gender: “All three are of foreign descent, middle class, and reached the presidency in very patriarchal societies. They all established new relationships [with] gender minorities and the very poor. This led to rejection and reactionary behaviour - based on the legitimate perception of corruption.”

This is a high point in the fight against corruption, as reflected in the star treatment given to Sergio Moro, the Brazilian judge of the Lava Jato dossier, on his regional tour. Companies including oil company Petrobras and the Brazilian multinational Odebrecht pleaded guilty to multi-million dollar bribes to dozens of officials from Latin American countries to obtain government contracts.

Welcoming him to Buenos Aires, Laura Alonso, head of the Argentine Anti-Corruption Office, said that “Moro represents what we want to happen in Argentina: investigating the powerful, in power or outside it.”

The Lava Jato judge was not against being upheld as a regional example: “Throughout Latin America much needs to be done to strengthen institutions and fight corruption,” and proposed regional coordination. For others, including Cristina Kirchner, this coordination already exists in the form of a conspiracy to selectively attack the alleged corruption of progressives in the hemisphere.

Corruption in Brazil: Is he or she who throws the first stone free from suspicion?

It was not the Lava Jato case that brought down Rousseff, although there is mention of alleged illegal payments to her electoral campaign and that of her then vice-president, Michel Temer. The accusations against her that proved decisive in Congress were charges of fiscal irregularities, disguising the budget deficit. Rousseff denied any wrongdoing or having signed the measures in question.

The Workers’ Party and parts of the Left denounced the impeachment as a farce and as a coup with an institutional facade. Fears of a coup have plagued Latin American leftist governments in the last decade, with regimes that have effectively collapsed, such as in Brazil, Honduras and Paraguay, and others who have complained of such attempts, including Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina.

The Federal Supreme Court found grounds for investigating the Lava Jato case – which involves illegal payments of between US$3250 to US$21.7 million in ten countries – to dozens of Brazilian politicians from numerous parties, mostly from the Right-wing Progressive Party (PP), followed by Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB). Rousseff and Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party is in third place.

Several of the members of Congress who ousted Rousseff are being investigated for corruption, including Temer and Eduardo Cunha, a former House Speaker, now in prison, who authorised the impeachment. Nine Temer ministers, 66 legislators and the last 3 presidents have recently appeared at the Court. Temer has not been prosecuted because the Constitution prevents criminal charges against a serving president.

It is not surprising, therefore, that while he is under investigation and amid speculation about his possible detention on 10 May, Lula is leading in the electoral polls, while Temer, who has done a u-turn and embraced economic neo-liberalism and social conservatism, has seen his ratings sink to an all-time low of 10 per cent.

Tapia Valles tells Equal Times: “The relationship between the press and the justice system, with selective leaks to the media...creating hostility towards political figures in the Workers’ Party [and fuelling] the protests against Rousseff and her raising suspicions about the behaviour of judges apparently sympathetic to parties such as the PSDB and PMDB, [among them] Moro and the constitutional court magistrate, Gilmar Mendes.”

Indeed, Moro was questioned over his special treatment of those parties. Faced with accusations of bias and the media lynching of Rousseff, da Silva and the Workers’ Party, the judge points to the partisan diversity of those investigated and his “need to have the support of public opinion when investigating powerful and systemic corruption.”

Is Argentina combating corruption, or just continuing its policy by other means?

December marked the first full year of non-Kirchner government for Argentina, against a background of recession and inflation. There have also been numerous allegations against Kirchner, from questionable links to powerful businesspeople, ex-officials and political allies, like indigenous activist Milagro Sala, accused of corruption but arrested for taking part in a public protest.

Kirchner faces prosecutions for corruption and illicit association, and embargoes equivalent to about US$650 million. There are investigations into payments she allegedly received from the public works entrepreneur Lázaro Báez, currently serving a prison sentence and mentioned as the alleged front-man for his family. The children of both are also being tried.

Meanwhile, the Mauricio Macri government is also facing accusations. Like Donald Trump, Macri has been questioned for not disclosing or not separating himself from his economic interests in due time and form. The Panama Papers associated him with offshore companies belonging to his father, the leader of a major economic group, which Macri did not declare in due time.

Some 20 Macri officials, collaborators, relatives and friends are included in the revelations, including his intelligence chief, cabinet members, and public works businessman and friend Nicolás Caputo.

The vice-president, Gabiela Michetti, faced accusations over sums of money she could not explain satisfactorily, but was recently acquitted. In a similar case, Néstor Kirchner’s former Economics Minister, Felisa Miceli, was found guilty by the courts. Fernando Niembro, a former colleague of Macri’s when he was head of the Buenos Aires administration, had to resign for being “in the middle of” 170 irregular and unpublished contracts issued by the city’s government. There has been no progress in the case against him in the two years since it began, and he has just been hired as an advisor to the Macri team.

As in Brazil, little is said about these cases in the mainstream media, which tends to be pro-government. Tapia Valles believes that for some time now the media “have been presenting a narrative that involves exposing certain political sectors and ‘shielding’ others; [creating] marked differences in perceptions of what is relevant, true or biased.” It is as if ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’ were exported from the Southern Cone to the Northern Hemisphere.

Is this the future for Chile?

In Chile, a country with historically low levels of perceived corruption, the most high-profile cases include the Fisheries Act, the Penta case, the CAVAL case – influence peddling by the president’s family, the Bancard case involving the former president and returning conservative candidate Sebastián Piñera; and private corruption cases such as LATAM Airlines, which paid bribes to Argentinean aeronautical unions.

As multi-party in scope as Lava Jato, the Penta Case revealed widespread illegal mechanisms to finance campaigns and buy political favours. Politicians of various parties are involved, but the majority are from the right. As a result, Congress enacted a new law on the financing of political activities and tougher penalties for this type of crime. There was also the CAVAL case, more limited but involving the son and daughter-in-law of the president. Bachelet’s leadership was seriously questioned and went from being elected with 60 per cent of the votes to a disapproval rating of 71 per cent.

As the consultant Francisco Sánchez Castro tells Equal Times, the growing polarisation and the ‘naturalisation’ of corruption is making Chile resemble the rest of the region: “The mainstream media is dominated by two groups with clear political affiliations, providing incomplete information to the public. No coalition is self-critical.” Given the proximity of the presidential elections it is highly likely that this convergence with the other two biggest countries in the region will accelerate.”

The role of business

Although Chile and Brazil have passed corporate anti-corruption laws and Argentina is discussing similar legislation, the regional leader of a major multinational told Equal Times, on condition of anonymity, that “corporate [corruption] cases pass almost unnoticed in the mainstream media, except government-linked mega-scandals, which are disclosed or minimised according to the political vision of the media concerned and those involved. There is a web of political, business, judicial and journalistic complicity: cases are used to negotiate avoidance of custodial sentences, political support and the return of favours. Entrepreneurs need to understand that corruption ultimately destroys industries, markets, sources of labour, and destroys free, fair and transparent competition.”

Latin America, and the Southern Cone in particular, have seen public opinion divided along Manichean lines. Diego Laje, a CNN reporter, notes that: “Many cases of corruption are seen as a political manoeuvre more than a condemnation of bad management. This is the biggest problem the media have created, and in many cases the link between the media and the fortunes made from corruption has something to do with it.”

Alonso comments that “the current situation goes beyond bias”, warning of the lack of concrete results: in Argentina there are so many delays that often the time limit has expired before sentences are handed down. At the moment, they are barely at the point of judging the Siemens case, which happened two decades ago. But at the same time some prominent kirchneristas have been tried and imprisoned.

Moro seems to agree with Alonso: “We are faced with corruption that is not confined: it is systemic”. The Brazilian Congress, with its attempts to sanction any ‘self-amnesty’ for these crimes, appears to share this view.

The different actors and experts consulted by Equal Times agree on the battery of anticorruption proposals discussed extensively in international fora. The biggest challenge is to avoid, reverse or at least diminish the effects of the relationship between each group of actors – officials, judges, businessmen, journalists – and those who are corrupt. The similarity of patterns in different countries points to problems in the system. In the face of systemic corruption, specific corrective measures do not have a lasting effect: the solutions will probably have to be systemic as well.

This article has been translated from Spanish.