Corruption in the Americas: A New Initiative on South-South Cooperation

Citizens across the Americas are angry about a continuing wave of cartel-related assassinations in Mexico; land activists being killed in Colombia; doctors and pharmaceutical companies sparking an opioid crisis in the United States; and even presidents, governors, and members of parliament in more than a half dozen countries around the region with direct links to crime syndicates, drug traffickers, and corrupt corporate officials. All were misusing their offices, the law, and taxpayer dollars for their own personal use. Perhaps Vice President Tareck El Aissami of the “People’s” Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela wins the latest corruption sweepstakes for reportedly having robbed Venezuela’s Treasury to the tune of $400 million last year.

These facts help to explain why the Eighth Summit of the Americas adopted unanimously a few weeks ago in Lima a Declaration on Democratic Governance Against Corruption with 57 paragraphs stating what needed to be done to bolster the forces of transparency, anticorruption, and good governance. Now the countries of the Americas need to implement those paragraphs, one by one, with full disclosure and even greater urgency.

Days after the Americas Summit, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, announced that its board had authorized more “assessment and discussion of governance and corruption” in its lending programs. Again, if that assessment becomes common practice in IMF, World Bank, and other international financial institution lending, the results are likely to strengthen democratic institutions.

Today, there is a growing citizen’s movement determined to hold public- and private-sector leaders to account. Citizens have gone to the streets in countries from Brazil to Guatemala to Peru to protest rampant corruption and to support determined judges, attorneys general, and agencies like the United Nations–sponsored International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala and the Organization of American States–sponsored anticorruption entity (MACCIH) in Honduras. They will be watching to see if governments respond in concrete ways to implement institutional reforms for transparency, anticorruption, and good government. At stake is public confidence in the capacity of democracy in the Americas to promote their rights and to guarantee effective, fair, and transparent governance and the rule of law.

Transparency International recently reported that 90 million people in 20 countries in the Americas paid bribes last year and two-thirds of those interviewed in face-to-face meetings said corruption was on the increase. At Davos in 2016, Latin America was the one region where corruption was identified as the most serious threat to democracy and to economic progress. In some countries in the Americas, corruption has spread to police and military forces, as well as to the judiciary. In those instances, the impact on citizen security has been dramatic. The corruption costs in those countries where homicides, extortion, and kidnapping are among the worst in the world range from 5 percent to as high as 13 percent of gross domestic product.

A Different Approach?

Two countries in the region have taken a different course and in recent years have distinguished themselves with innovative and effective efforts to address corruption and promote greater transparency in the public and private sectors. Chile and Uruguay have garnered high marks from the IMF, the World Bank, and Transparency International—effectively top of their class on transparency and anticorruption in Latin America but also with impressive rankings globally. Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Uruguay 23 and Chile 26 out of 180 countries worldwide. The World Bank index with respect to control of corruption puts Uruguay 91.35 and Chile 89.90 out of 100, as high as the United States. And on rule of law, Chile gained a rating of 87.98 and Uruguay 79.33, again far above the Latin American average. These two countries, where a broad-based civil society movement exists, for years now have crossed partisan and ideological lines to build a national consensus to strengthen transparency and anticorruption. Colombia, although not ranked as high in the transparency indices as Chile and Uruguay, offers specific lessons on how to address impunity while at the same time promoting significant improvements in citizen security. All three countries stand out in pioneering innovative legal, regulatory, and independent nongovernmental mechanisms to address these issues.

The Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently launched an innovative project with civil society representatives and the official cooperation agencies of Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia to promote south-south cooperation on transparency and good governance in the Northern Triangle countries (NTC) of Central America. The NTC have long been the focus of efforts to address high levels of corruption and impunity. As a means of comparison, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, the Northern Triangle countries were ranked in the bottom half of 180 countries surveyed. Just last June, at the Miami Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, Vice President Mike Pence and senior government ministers from Mexico and the United States committed to working with the Northern Triangle countries to promote, among other goals, the strengthening of anticorruption, transparency, and rule of law.

This south-south project is already well underway, with civil society representatives in Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia agreeing to define detailed assessments of the relevant experiences and best practices of these three countries in five priority areas including:

  • political party and campaign financing;
  • public financial sector management;
  • government contracting and procurement, including for infrastructure projects;
  • civil service reform and vetting mechanisms for public officials, including in the judiciary and law enforcement; and
  • internal strengthening and oversight of security and justice institutions to combat impunity and improve citizen security.

The CSIS project ultimately proposes to put together a clearinghouse of “best practices” in public policy to promote transparency, anticorruption, and citizen security. These best practices must be identified, assessed, and recorded, including in a web-accessible digitized format, to facilitate broad study and potential application first in the NTC and eventually in other countries of the region and perhaps beyond. These best practices will be shared through direct south-south technical assistance carried out by government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives from Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia. Most of this work will be carried out through visits to the NTC by experts from both governments and NGOs, as well as return visits by NTC public and private representatives.

This south-south cooperation project aims essentially to share the strategy of civil society and public partners working together to construct the political will necessary to institutionalize the fight against corruption and hold accountable those who abuse their positions and their power. The lessons that Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia have set out with clarity in recent years are that change is possible and polarized ideological politics can be overcome. This can happen when civil society and savvy political leaders from all sides recognize that the country can move forward only if it is seen by its people and by the world outside as a place where rules are fair, affect all equally, and are enforced.

This CSIS project, led by senior public- and private-sector actors in Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development and Open Society Foundations, will help map avenues for south-south technical expertise to build a new transparency ethos: anticorruption institutions are key to protecting democracy and promoting economic progress, and those who abuse their public trust anywhere in the Americas will go to jail.

Michael A. Matera is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser with the CSIS Americas Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative

Michael A. Matera