When charges against former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff resulted in her removal from office, protests throughout the country led many within the mainstream media to speculate that widespread public intolerance of corrupt behaviour would usher in a new public morality. Surely, such a demonstration of public anger against corruption would alert the country’s politicians to the fact that appropriation of the public treasury for personal gain would no longer be tolerated. Unhappily, this was naïve thinking as recent events so clearly demonstrate.
For much of the twentieth century, unaccountable governments, generally unresponsive to public demands, characterized most countries of Latin America. While from the mid-1980s, electoral democracies seemed to have put an end to the cycles of left populist authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships, authoritarian features (lack of accountability, the absence of the rule of law, etc.) have remained firmly entrenched.
It is now apparent that neither democracy nor the neoliberal prescription of dismantling the state has been successful in mitigating widespread corruption in Latin America. In Brazil, Eduardo Cunha, the powerful politician and former leader of the lower house, who orchestrated the ouster of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, has recently been arrested on corruption charges. Many more high-level Brazilian politicians and businessmen are currently under investigation, including the current president of Brazil, Michel Temer. Former President Lula has also been charged with corruption. Investigations of corruption in Argentina have reached top-level politicians and the businessmen closely allied with the Kirchner administrations. The Argentine federal prosecutor has indicted former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, who amassed a fortune during her tenure in office, on corruption charges. These charges have included, among other transgressions, intervention in a currency trade involving Argentina’s Central Bank that may have cost the country billions of dollars. Distressing for many observers, is the fact that these governments had come to power through the electoral process and were part of the “pink tide,” left leaning regimes that promised social justice in the wake of the persistence of poverty and high levels of inequality. The mainstream media (optimistically) characterized the widespread protests in Brazil against the Rousseff administration as indicating growing public anger against the mismanagement and greed of politicians who had promised improved distributive outcomes. Hence, there is the expectation that the next stage will involve important changes in policy and institutional arrangements that will finally put an end to, or at least mitigate, corrupt practices. This thinking will be convincing only to those with short memories.
The recent scandals in a number of Latin American countries raise the issue of institutional capacity and the vexing issue of what is at the root of state incapacity in Latin American countries, particularly in those cases that have made recent significant progress in reducing poverty. This blog entry argues that there are long-standing historical and structural conditions that make corrupt practices extremely resilient. The reform of formal institutions will not be effective unless it is accompanied by efforts to grapple with those underlying conditions.