Opinion Piece

Are we more corrupt than ever before?

Bnamericas Published: Thursday, March 10, 2016

In Brazil, the Lava Jato corruption scandal has reached heights hitherto unimaginable.

Last week, Brazil's popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva was briefly detained for questioning, and his São Paulo house was raided. Investigators suspect Lula and his family benefited from home renovations carried out by engineering firm OAS and construction giant Odebrecht in exchange for political favors.

The probe now extends beyond Brazil's borders. Peru's outgoing President Ollanta Humala is reportedly suspected of receiving illegal payments from former Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht. Argentina's former transport minister Ricardo Jaime has also been implicated in a 44-page document published by Brazil's federal police.

There are two ways of looking at this. One: corruption is so rife, so intertwined in business and political life in Brazil (and in Latin America, and across humankind) that no one is clean. The other is that Latin American corruption is finally being confronted and exposed with the seriousness required; and that we are, in fact, moving in the right direction. I will take the latter view.

In Brazil, the scale of the clampdown is unprecedented. Jail terms have never been so hefty. Institutions are proving to be autonomous and strong, and no one, not even the most powerful, is immune.

Earlier this week, Marcelo Odebrecht was sentenced to 19 years in jail, convicted of paying some US$30mn in bribes to oil company Petrobras officials in exchange for contracts and other favors. Facing similar charges, last year the former treasurer of the country's ruling workers' party, João Vaccari Neto, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while former Petrobras executive Renato Duque got 20. 

In all, 67 people have been convicted in the investigation. But the ordeal is nowhere near from being over. Federal prosecutor Sergio Moro has said around 750 public works "in various infrastructure sectors" are currently under watch, and at least 100 cases are being investigated.

Another important point is the new role of social media, and the sudden ubiquity of information. Latin America is one of the fastest growing regions for internet penetration; it spends more time on social media than any other region in the world. Technology is not only helping to shed light on corruption, but is also a main component of the case against those implicated: emails and WhatsApp messages sent by Marcelo Odebrecht, for example, were crucial to his downfall.

Finally, while there is a long way to go for serious investigative reporting throughout Latin America, the press on the whole is now more free, and more divorced from political and commercial interests – certainly in comparison to the period of dictatorships and repression at the end of the 20th century – and has played an important role in the process of justice in Brazil and elsewhere.

Corruption exists everywhere. Power corrupts, as we well know. The hope is that new and able leaders, democratically elected and held accountable by strong institutions and technology, will help usher in a more transparent Latin America. We're on our way, I think.

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