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It's often said that corruption is endemic in Latin America, and not without good reason. The truth, however, is that bribery, blackmail, extortion, embezzlement and racketeering are all too commonplace across the globe.
The latest edition of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index demonstrates the point. "No country gets close to a perfect score in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016," reads the preamble. "The global average score is a paltry 43, indicating endemic corruption in a country's public sector." Pretty grim stuff.
The top scoring countries are the ones we would expect to be high in the ranking, with Denmark and New Zealand leading the way with 90 points, followed by Finland, Sweden, Switzerland Norway and Singapore. There are also few surprises at the other end of the table, with Somalia, South Sudan; North Korea and Syria propping up the standings, and Venezuela not far off with a mere 17 points.
Looking at how other Latin American countries fare, Uruguay (71 points) and Chile (66) – despite the multiple cases of irregular campaign financing and influence peddling on the part of the president's daughter-in-law in the latter – once again come out tops in the region in 21st and 24th spots, respectively. Costa Rica is third (58 points), but way behind in 41st place out of the 176 countries ranked. The next highest-ranked Latin American country is, perhaps surprisingly, Cuba in the 60th spot with 47 points, while Mexico was one of the biggest losers, with five points less than last year at 30 and coming a pitiful 123rd.
While Uruguay and Chile both saw their score decline, Brazil and Argentina – despite coming a lowly 79th and 95th – both scored higher in point terms than last year at 40 and 36, respectively.
That may seem odd to some, given the scale of corruption that has emerged in the last few years, notably the Petrobras/Odebrecht 'Car Wash' scandal in Brazil and the notorious goings-on under the Fernández de Kirchner administration in Argentina. Both countries, however, now have new governments, and while not commenting specifically on Argentina, Transparency International's assessment is that it's not always bad to have headlines about corruption as it indicates something is being done about it.
"From the Panama Papers in April to the record US$3.5bn Odebrecht settlement in Brazil in December 2016 was a good year in the fight against corruption in the Americas," the organization says.
Two caveats before we get overly optimistic. Firstly, the index is not a measure of corruption, but how people – largely those engaged in businesses dealings – perceive the level of corruption in a country. Secondly, Just because people feel action is being taken to tackle high level cases like that surrounding Petrobras, doesn't mean that other cases aren't running rampant unperceived.
The causes of corruption are numerous – weak state institutions, lack of an independent judiciary, poorly paid police and other officials, a press that fails to hold government officials and others to account, etc. The root of the problem, however, is the abuse of power and the temptation of money. And that is not a Latin American issue but a human one.