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Could corruption investigations undermine democracy in Latin America?

Anti-corruption efforts in Latin America may be backfiring.

The former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces press questions about a corruption scandal, in March.
The former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, faces press questions about a corruption scandal, in March.
Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

One of the most important stories in Latin American politics in recent decades begins with a 2014 Brazilian federal investigation into a Brasília gas station/laundromat where cars were washed and clothes and money laundered. Radiating outward from this one city block, “Operation Car Wash” has become a sprawling web of allegations, indictments, and convictions that implicate top companies, businesspeople, and politicians throughout Latin America.

Among the most significant people to fall in this scandal thus far have been Peruvian ex-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned on March 23 to avoid impeachment, and Brazil’s leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was imprisoned on April 8.

When a top political leader is brought low, the process is often framed in the international media as a sign that democratic mechanisms and the rule of law are triumphing in Latin America. Indeed, independent judiciaries and legislatures, as well as media and civil society, are showing their willingness to hold powerful people to account for their bad behavior. The message that no one is above the law is hailed as a critical advancement for democracy.

Yet we fear that something is amiss. Paradoxically, the current round of corruption investigations could ultimately undermine democracy in Latin America more than fortify it.

Corruption investigations in Latin America threaten democracy in two ways. First, malfeasant legislators and executives — rightly recognizing this historical opening as an existential threat to their job security and freedom from imprisonment — are fighting back. From Guatemala to Argentina to Honduras to Brazil, politicians are using their positions of power and control over legislative levers to weaken the rule of law, rewriting policy and manipulating investigations to shield themselves yet take down opponents. These public officials are exploiting the tools of the law and an open civil society to subvert anti-corruption investigations and the rule of law.

Most obviously, this involves attempts to shut down entire investigations and dismantle agencies that prosecute corruption. In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales has for the past year been seeking to shut down the anti-corruption agency CICIG — an effort that in the past month gained traction with baseless allegations that the CICIG has been manipulated by Russia (see also recent events in Honduras).

Even more threatening to the rule of law, though, has been selective prosecution — often unintentional on the part of anti-corruption crusaders in civil society and accountability agencies of the state.

With the new zeal for prosecuting corruption in Latin America has come the weaponization of corruption investigations. For instance, in 2016, conservative Brazilian politicians succeeded in impeaching center-leftist President Dilma Rousseff from the Workers’ Party (known by its Brazilian initials, PT). The impeachment was based on questionable grounds formally related to minor fiscal mismanagement but was framed by her partisan opponents as part of a broader corruption scandal in which Rousseff was not in fact implicated.

A year and a half later, Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor from the PT, Lula, was prosecuted and imprisoned on more serious corruption charges — yet the legitimacy of the prosecution was tainted by the fact that the (by Brazilian standards) speedy and non-exhaustive legal process appeared calibrated to disqualify Lula from the 2018 presidential election.

Meanwhile, justice has been plodding and less fierce for politicians from the coalition of center-right and rightist parties now opposing the PT. Brazil’s right-leaning legislative majority has repeatedly voted to shield Rousseff’s conservative replacement, current President Michel Temer, from prosecution on corruption charges more severe than those that faced Lula. Temer and his legislative allies pursued Rousseff’s impeachment while they themselves faced corruption charges. Corruption proceedings have recently begun against Aécio Neves, Rousseff’s principal opponent in the 2014 presidential election, though the charges have long been in the public eye.

In this context, people who perceive themselves as neutral — including media, the courts, and civil society activists — can be drawn readily into false equivalence that ultimately serves partisan interests. The narrative of impartiality has led observers to paint the political sins and fates of Rousseff, Lula, Temer, and Neves in similar tones and brushstrokes. Yet a straightforward reading of the facts reveals great variation in the gravity of both violations and punishments, leading to a bias in favor of the conservatives currently in power.

Meanwhile, the international media hails Brazil’s anti-corruption activist federal Judge Sérgio Moro as a democratic hero, yet fails to recognize that selective prosecution and conviction damages the rule of law.

The second way corruption investigations undermine democracy in Latin America is psychological. Even when fairly implemented, massive corruption investigations can lead to the perception that the whole system is rotten. Media coverage of corruption triggers decreased faith in the political system, and thus lower levels of voter turnout and other forms of political participation. Following the investigation and impeachment of President Richard Nixon in the United States, Americans’ trust in government as a whole declined precipitously. Political apathy and disengagement can foster support for dangerous populist demagogues or for a military “solution” to the problems of democratic government.

The more wide-ranging the corruption scandal, the greater the threat to support for the political system as a whole. Here, the Guatemalan and Brazilian cases are emblematic. In Guatemala, the past six elected presidents have been the subject of credible and grave corruption charges.

Meanwhile, of Brazil’s seven presidents since democratization in 1985, two have been impeached. A third is currently imprisoned, and two others have been the subject of serious corruption charges (Temer and José Sarney). Arguably the least tainted of the seven, the statesman Fernando Henrique Cardoso, recently acknowledged that corruption had also been widespread in his administration, though he denied personal involvement.

And the ever-expanding scandal shows no signs of slowing down: 15 of the 20 most frequently discussed candidates for Brazil’s October 2018 elections face a whopping 160 investigations.

In such a situation, it seems reasonable for citizens to conclude that the system is fundamentally broken, top to bottom. Yet shining a bright light on the rot can make it more difficult to fix the problems, if citizens disengage from democracy.

What is to be done? On the one hand, citizens and civil society elites fortify democracy by confronting corrupt politicians; on the other hand, how we talk about and mobilize around the corruption fight matters. In the swirl of corruption investigations, a key fact has gotten lost entirely: Over the past 25 years, corruption has declined precipitously in many developing countries. For instance, starting in the 1990s, Brazil instituted a number of reforms to tighten controls over social policy spending, limiting opportunities for politicians to siphon off health, education, and welfare funds.

Meanwhile, a major reason these corruption allegations have come to light and entered the legal system is the expansion of the powers and funding of pro-accountability agencies within the state, such as the public prosecutor and the federal police, which have expanded the “web of accountability.”

In covering anti-corruption investigations, it is important to shine the light on the remarkable progress that countries like Brazil have made in moving toward greater transparency and accountability. Indeed, overlooking them could bolster anti-democratic forces with an interest in dismantling the advances.

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