Addressing Corruption in Latin America

Publication Date: 
20 Jun 2013

Delia Ferreira Rubio, recipient of IFES’ 2011 Joe C. Baxter Award, has devoted her career to transparency issues around the world. A long-time IFES consultant, a Transparency International (TI) Board Member and former President of Poder Ciudadano, TI's national chapter in Argentina, she has worked to increase accountability and transparency in government through a variety of channels.

In this interview, she provides an update on transparency in Latin America. She was last interviewed by IFES on this topic after receiving the Baxter award. 

What are some of the main challenges or biggest obstacles to electoral integrity and transparency in Latin America?

Challenges differ from country to country. One of the main threats is partisanship of election management bodies (EMBs). When political parties determine the composition of an EMB and their members serve as representatives, the EMB may lack the necessary impartiality. This situation affects electoral integrity and fair competition, and weakens the credibility and legitimacy of the EMB. In other countries, transparency is not sufficiently guaranteed because of deficient rules, which hinder control mechanisms, accountability and oversight.

Corruption seems to be endemic, or simply part of the culture of institutions in Latin America. How can this be changed?

The fight against corruption requires a holistic approach. Appropriate rules and laws are necessary, but are not sufficient alone. It is important to have strong anti-corruption institutions and agencies. An independent and efficient judiciary is key in the fight against corruption, and is needed to put an end to impunity.

However, we can have all of these things and still see high degrees of corruption. It is essential to stop social tolerance for corruption and create a demand for transparency. For this purpose, citizens should realize corruption affects their lives. Corruption means poorer education and healthcare; underdeveloped infrastructure; less possibilities of progress; and, in many cases, insecurity and death.

Some governments in the region have enacted measures to expand their power. Often, this includes curtailing freedom of the press. How does this affect electoral integrity and transparency?

Freedom of press and information is essential for democracy. Unfortunately, some countries in Latin America have enacted restrictive legislation on media. So-called “neo-populist regimes,” as those in Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua and Ecuador, see independent press as a threat and a limit to their aspiration of total control. These regimes not only attack freedom of press, but also freedom of information in general. An informed citizenry is a risk for authoritarian regimes. A lack of information affects electoral transparency and deters citizens' control over elections.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned the toll that the trafficking of narcotics was taking in the region. Have we seen any improvements over the past few years?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Organized crime has strengthened its presence and influence in many countries. These criminal organizations have sophisticated ways of doing business, and have infiltrated political life in many countries. Globalization is not limited to legal business; it also facilitates the activities of mafias and cartels. Money laundering and tax havens are among the main challenges authorities face today. The fight against these enemies requires international cooperation and coordination among governmental agencies and judicial authorities.

How do practices in the private sector – whether they foster corruption or accountability – affect the public sector’s practices?

Corruption is like the tango. You need two to dance. Schemes vary from country to country and among sectors. Sometimes it is the private sector that offers money for contracts, licenses or privileged access. In other cases, corrupt officials ask for money to facilitate businesses. The fight against corruption should address both.

What can citizens do to increase electoral integrity and transparency in their countries?

Active participation by citizens is essential. In many countries, civil society organizations develop local electoral observation. The observation mission in Colombia is a good example of this. In other countries, NGOs nongovernmental organizations devote their efforts to monitor campaign finance or the use of public resources during elections.

Please share a success story of a country or government in the region that was able to increase electoral integrity and transparency.

Brazil increased electoral transparency and integrity through a simple vote counting technology. In Brazil, votes were not counted at the polling station, which created a window of opportunity for electoral fraud. Brazilian authorities developed an electronic machine that solves this problem. Once the last vote has been cast, the result of each polling station is automatically generated.

Electronic voting is not a panacea that can magically resolve a lack of electoral integrity and transparency. The Brazilian case is a successful example of electronic voting because the implemented solution met the particular need of the country's electoral system at the time.