Events

Fighting Corruption in the Americas

June 25, 2007 // 2:30pm4:30pm

On June 25, 2007, the Latin American Program together with Transparency International hosted a panel of representatives from Transparency International chapters in Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. The representatives reported their recent evaluations of anti-corruption initiatives in these countries within the context of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption.

According to Cynthia Arnson, Wilson Center, corruption is commonly viewed as a threat to democratic consolidation and democratic institutions, and as an impediment to growth and development. In the last few years there has been modest improvement in reducing the public's perception of corruption within their respective governments, but a majority of the population still believes public officials are corrupt. As a result, the international community has devised mechanisms to ensure greater transparency. Nancy Zucker Boswell, Transparency International USA, stated that the multilateral efforts to fight corruption began in 1994 at the Summit of the Americas. The Inter-American Convention against Corruption, developed within the framework of the Organization of American States (OAS), establishes the minimum standards around areas such as codes of conduct, access to information, whistleblower protection, and procurement, among others. In 1999 Transparency International convened experts from across the region and asked them how the convention could be better enforced. It was decided that the convention needed a peer review and a follow-up mechanism to track the progress of its recommendations. This follow-up mechanism is now in its second round of review.

As explained by Eduardo Bohórquez of Transparencia Mexicana, the challenge to good governance is finding a balance between public opinion and effective governance. Ten years ago, Mexico began a period of "moral renovation," where government sought to become a formal organism that influenced citizens' behavior. This manifested itself in the introduction of new legislation, but the administration quickly realized that even new legislation could be easily shaped by particular interests within government. Under the Zedillo administration, the focus shifted to the modernization of the state, characterized by the importance of internal control of the executive, the simplification of public administration, and incorporating technology into government practices. Yet despite reforms, there is still a need for better coordination between the different government branches.
The Access to Information Law met several goals of the reformist agenda because it received adequate funding, obtained the necessary autonomy, and linked government to civil society. Nevertheless, analysts caution against allowing local governments to prematurely approve laws of greater access to information, without having the necessary tools to provide it. Bohórquez concluded that corruption is not the result of a disregard for moral integrity but rather the reflection of government failure. The popular approach of creating an anti-corruption czar is not a solution and incarceration alone as a punishment for corruption has not been enough to convince people of change.

Carlos Fonseca, PROÉTICA-Consejo Nacional para la Ética Pública, noted that anti-corruption legislation in Peru outlines and prohibits almost every act that could be considered corruption. The problem is that few people are ever tried or convicted for such crimes. Also, the work this requires of the judiciary exceeds the operational capacity of this institution. In the realm of hiring public servants, Fonseca noted that government is missing a clear and inclusive strategy and has made the mistake of adhering too severely to austerity by drastically reducing wages. The administration is rigid and inefficient; there is a lack of public service, an abuse of discretion, and a deepening disparity between responsibilities and salaries for public servants. In addition, there is no protection for whistleblowers and legislation on the subject has not been debated, as there are disagreements about the responsibilities of each government branch in the process. Fonseca noted that the government does not promote citizen participation, and thus the most effective avenues for the involvement of civil society are informal.

Victor Hart, Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute (TTTI), situated the state of corruption reforms in Trinidad and Tobago within a society experiencing an economic boom from petroleum and approaching parliamentary elections in October. One of the principle areas of suggested reform centers on the highly unregulated public procurement processes. Procurement is largely carried out by government institutions, working outside of the legal framework, established by Trinidadian law. However, the government is hesitant to adopt TTTI's recommended reforms because it fears certain policies may limit its ability to "fast-track" specific projects. According to Hart, this is a major concern leading up to the October elections; a new political party in power may curb or further delay the adoption of the reforms. Additionally, there is concern over high-cost "mega-projects," funded by the petroleum boom and developed outside of both the existing procurement regulations and the recommended reform legislation. Hart decried the government's non-compliance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (passed in 2005), which aims to promote transparency in contracts within the extractive sector. Given these concerns, Hart emphasized that the Inter-American Convention against Corruption can only be effective if its recommendations are adopted by government and implemented urgently.

Mercedes de Freitas of Transparencia Venezuela, explained that the hiring process for public officials in Venezuela lacks competitiveness, despite the country's ample laws regulating the process. This is evidenced by official government statistics which show an increase in the number of public officials hired without a competitive hiring procedure from 4,694 in 2004 to 11,581 in 2006. In addition, the infamous Tascón and Maisanta lists — which publicized the names of those who supported referendums against Chávez, as well as the official party membership lists for Chávez's socialist party—identifies the names of those eligible for government hire based on their political loyalties. On the subject of procurement, De Freitas concluded that the ambiguity of procurement law has resulted in a less transparent process and the normalization of direct adjudication, which is particularly evidenced by highly-funded, popular, social welfare programs (called misiones) that are not factored into the country's overall budget.

Regarding whistleblower protection, de Freitas noted that while the 1999 penal code attempted to establish protection for victims of crime, it did not make any provisions for public officials who report corrupt practices. This is further complicated by an overall distrust of the judicial system; whistleblowers fear that they will be jailed, threatened, or lose their job because of their actions. In addition, Venezuela's has recently increased enforcement of desacato laws, which punish anyone who criticizes a public official.

Alfonso Quiroz, Baruch College and Graduate Center, City University of New York, highlighted the importance of three major points raised by the speakers: 1) discrepancies between recent advances in legal structures regarding corruption and the actual implementation of anti-corruption measures; 2) the way in which public opinion diverges from the pace of reforms; and 3) the negative public opinion resulting from state inefficiency. In addressing these issues, Transparency International has played an important role, inspiring an historical benchmark in the fight against corruption in Latin America by providing governments with multi-pronged recommendations. Quiroz pointed out that despite the recent legislative successes in the region, additional challenges to implementing basic anti-corruption reforms remain, ranging from complicated bureaucracy, and lack of consensus amongst civil society, to the existence of "despotic regimes."


Drafted by Jessica Varat and Antonio Delgado


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