Baxter Award Winner Talks Democracy in Latin America

Delia Ferreira Rubio, winner of the 2011 Joe C. Baxter Award, is an internationally recognized expert in political finance and advocate for transparency in government. Her insight into the political process is valued by individuals and organizations around the world. A board member at Transparency International (TI) and former president of Poder Ciudadano, TI’s national chapter in Argentina, Ferreira Rubio answered a few questions on transparency and accountability in the Americas after receiving the Baxter Award on December 8.

Question: Congratulations on winning the Baxter award. During your acceptance speech you said this award gives you a boost of energy to continue doing what you do. Can you tell us about your career in elections and democracy?

Answer: I was recently asked a similar question — when did I start working on elections. I started organizing an election in my classroom during one of the military regimes in Argentina. And I realize now that it was a risky assignment, but I organized the political election in order to explain the consequences and effects of the different electoral systems. It was my first election, in a way.

Since then, I have been wearing different hats, working with different organizations and different actors in the process. I have helped vice presidential candidates in Argentina. I have worked with the electoral body. I worked with the Ministry of the Interior and in Congress, drafting laws on money and politics and elections. So, it has been a long road until now.

Q: You have done a lot of work with transparency, in particular. Can you please tell us about the connection between transparency and democracy?

A: They are very much related because transparency is the foundation of good governance, of democracy, of actual representation.

For instance, in money and politics, you have to know who is behind the candidate. When you have that information, you can assess the credibility of the candidate, the coherence of speeches and slogans, and you can also detect conflicts of interests that may arise in the future when the elected official takes decisions.

So, in this way, transparency helps the quality of our democracy. It helps us know if the representatives are representatives of the people or of other interests. It helps us hold electoral officials and elected officials accountable.

Q: And how is Latin America doing when it comes to transparency and accountability?

A: According to the index of corruption perception that Transparency International releases each year, some people say Latin America is always in a bad position, but that’s not true. Some countries are doing very well — Chile and Uruguay, for example. Chile is doing better than the United States this year. Uruguay is also in the seventh point, where 10 is very transparent and zero is absolutely corrupt or perceived as corrupt. And, of course, there are other countries, like my own country, Argentina, with three points. Or Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, which have very low positions in the rankings. So, it’s not a problem of the Latin American region. It’s a problem of each country and the way they develop accountability, the way they create and work toward transparency, access of information and, in general, public procurement and control, etc. 

Q: When it comes to Mexico and Central America, they have been engulfed by organized crime. How has this affected democracy?

A: It is very important to face this huge, huge challenge. I think it’s the challenge in Latin America, particularly in Central America, but not only Central America.

The problem is that when you have money coming from organized crime into politics, into campaigns, they are acquiring influence. And then they are hijacking officials in order not to be efficient. The reward for organized crime is not in winning a contract or a nomination as minister or some subsidies. They want the state to be stupid, to do nothing, to not be efficient.

In this sense, organized crime presents or poses a more difficult challenge to lawmakers and enforcement authorities. The traditional rules and tools we have used to face money coming from the private sector that wants to capture the state are not and will not be useful to face the challenge of organized crime. And when organized crime captures states, we have no more democracy — that is the result.

Q: Along these lines, what recommendations do you have to improve the democratic process in Latin America?

A: First, we have to enhance transparency. We have to strengthen the enforcement mechanism and auditing capacity of electoral bodies and other agencies in the state related to elections, transparency and public procurement. It is also important to create a demand for transparency. We won’t have transparent politics if the people don’t vote for that. If people vote on the basis of, “Well, they are stealing things, but they do other things that are important for us, so I keep voting for dishonest politicians or corrupt politicians,” we won’t get good governance — we won’t get real democratic government. We won’t be represented fully by our representatives. So, you have to also create a demand for democracy.

Q: Taking a more historical perspective, what can you tell us about the evolution of democracy in Latin America?

A: I recently heard that the last decade was a lost decade for democracy in Latin America and I really don’t believe it to be so. The problem with democracy in Latin America is that the expectations were higher than what was really possible for democracy. It seemed in the '80s that democracy would resolve all the problems people have, and that is not possible. Democracy is just a way to organize us and to guarantee certain values for our way of living, but we cannot solve all the problems by just having an elected government.

Nevertheless, I think our democracy has lots of aims that have to be fulfilled. We have to improve lots of things, but coming from military regimes where what was at stake was our lives — really our lives — having 30 years of democratically elected authorities is very important.

In some countries what has not improved in the same way is the quality of political leadership. Nevertheless, society as such has really matured and if you look at the Latinobarometro, for instance, the question: “Would you prefer an authoritarian government or a democratic government with all the faulty aspects of democracy?” People still believe that democracy is the way to live. So that is important and it is important, too, to keep on working for better elections, fair elections and also to improve the governance side, the transparency aspect and the way in which government conducts public affairs in our countries.