Top government officials from around the region will assemble tomorrow in Peru for the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Eighth Summit of the Americas. However, amid the usual shows of grandiose statesmanship, this year will likely also see many uncomfortable conversions between nervous politicians -- and perhaps a heavy dose of hypocrisy -- thanks to the summit’s theme: “democratic governance against corruption.”
Corruption scandals in Latin America are developing at a frantic pace, and many of the governments represented at the summit are in precarious positions with multiple investigations eroding their credibility and the credibility of state institutions in general.
In just the first three months of 2018, the scandal surrounding Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht has continued to snowball, threatening current and former officials across the continent. Peru’s president resigned, while Brazil’s former president has been hauled off to prison. Central American governments have been in open conflict with international anti-corruption bodies. Colombia’s presidential elections have been tainted by corruption allegations while its faltering peace process has been undermined by accusations of graft. Its neighbor Venezuela has continued its descent into a fully-fledged mafia state, while even the United States has lost claims to the moral high ground thanks to investigations into to the Trump campaign and its associates.
The very location of the summit has taken on an ironic slant. Just three weeks ago, Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, became the first sitting head of state in Latin America to stand down because of the Odebrecht scandal. Virtually every one of his predecessors stretching back to the 1990s has been investigated or convicted of corruption.
Kuczynski resigned a day before he was due to face a congressional vote to impeach him over alleged bribes he received from Odebrecht. The day before, opposition politicians had released videos showing the president’s supporters apparently bribing opposition lawmakers to vote against the impeachment.
Kuczynski is far from alone in being sucked into the Odebrecht scandal. In March, new evidence emerged that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro may have accepted $35 million in campaign donations in exchange for public contracts.
The Odebrecht scandal is also casting a shadow over Colombia’s presidential elections, the first round of which will take place in May. The political blocs of two of the three frontrunners, Iván Duque and Germán Vargas Lleras -- as well as sitting President Juan Manuel Santos -- have been implicated in the scandal.
The other frontrunner, leftist Gustavo Petro, is running on an anti-corruption platform. Petro is also the only one of the frontrunners to fully back the peace process with the now demobilized guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). However, in recent weeks the faltering process has itself been hit by allegations of suspicious contracting and networks of intermediaries siphoning off money destined for post-conflict investments.
Meanwhile, in Central America, 2018 has seen the further escalation of clashes between international anti-corruption bodies in Guatemala and Honduras and the countries’ elites.
In February, the head of the OAS’s own Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) resigned after the government passed a law that devastated authorities' capacity to investigate and prosecute cases. This was followed in April by news that congressmen who had been indicted on corruption charges had filed a motion to the Supreme Court that seeks to declare the MACCIH unconstitutional.
In Guatemala, the latest twist in the struggle between the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) and the government of anti-corruption candidate turned corruption suspect, President Jimmy Morales, saw the government transfer 11 agents working with the CICIG.
Perhaps the most famous leader in the region, US President Donald Trump, is also under suspicion of corruption within his inner circle, and perhaps by the president himself. However, Trump recently announced that he will skip the summit, citing the need to attend to a developing situation in Syria.
InSight Crime Analysis
The gathered political leaders at the OAS summit are unlikely to come up with policies that will truly combat the cancer of corruption in the Americas. In fact, many will be more concerned with diverting such efforts in order to preserve their own power.
Nevertheless, the assessment of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro when announcing the summit’s theme last year holds true.
“The future of the region stands at a critical juncture because of the threats to democratic governance,” he said. “Corruption is eating away at institutions from within.”
The constant parade of corruption scandals, which is continuing to gather pace in 2018, is unprecedented. But the results of this conflict remain very much uncertain.
The battle lines have been drawn. The fates of Lula, Kuczynski and numerous others in the last few years have exposed chinks in the armor of elite impunity. But those elites are now closing ranks.
In some countries, most notably Guatemala and Honduras, elites are openly confronting anti-corruption efforts. In others, such as Brazil, where sitting president Michel Temer has so far avoided prosecution for allegations that eclipse those that condemned Lula, political factions are encouraging anti-corruption efforts against their enemies while protecting their own impunity. In the most extreme case, the government of Venezuela has all but hijacked democracy to protect itself from the incessant allegations while clinging on to power.
Numerous tests for anti-corruption campaigns and indeed the strength of democracy in the region are now looming.
In Colombia and Brazil, corruption could play a central role in forthcoming elections. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will soon select new attorneys general, which could prove critical to the future of corruption investigations. Peru currently sits in the eye of a constitutional storm following the resignation of Kuczynski, while Venezuela stands on the brink of a complete democratic collapse.
As Almagro stated, the region stands at a crossroads. Where it goes from here will play a determining role in the future of security and democracy in the Americas.