Covid-19 creates a corruption pandemic in Latin America

. May 27, 2020
covid-19 latin america corruption Illustration: Jika

While certainly not endemic to the region, corruption is a problem that has plagued Latin America throughout the last hundred years. As it becomes the world’s new Covid-19 epicenter, several corruption opportunities have sprouted across Latin American countries, with the population quarantined and checks and balances reduced — as the sweeping health crisis creates the need for swift moves and contracts to fight the pandemic.

Rio de Janeiro hit the headlines on Tuesday, when Brazil’s Federal Police launched Operation Placebo, investigating alleged corruption schemes of embezzling public funds by way of overpriced contracts to build Covid-19 field hospitals. Marshals carried out search and seizure warrants at the offices of Governor Wilson Witzel and his wife Helena.

</p> <p>Two weeks ago, the state&#8217;s health secretary, <a href="">Edmar Santos, was fired</a> amid allegations he assisted in the defrauding of ventilator purchases for the state hospital network. A police operation to this end resulted in the arrest of at least four people, including Mr. Santos&#8217; deputy.</p> <h2>Covid-19 corruption around Latin America</h2> <p>While Brazil&#8217;s President Jair Bolsonaro <a href="">pushed out two Health Ministers</a> in the space of one month due to political differences, neighbors Bolivia went one better. On May 21, Bolivia&#8217;s Health Minister Marcelo Navajas <a href="">was fired and arrested</a> for allegedly overspending millions of dollars on cheap ventilators. Mr. Navajas was appointed as the new health department chief just six weeks before the scandal broke.&nbsp;</p> <p>In Colombia, where corruption creates a yearly cost of USD 13 million to the country&#8217;s coffers — almost five percent of its GDP — Covid-19 scandals are already getting out of control. This month, Colombian prosecutors filed a request to arrest ten mayors for alleged acts of corruption occurring since the country declared a public health emergency on March 19. So far, the prosecutors’ office has already issued 512 disciplinary procedures concerning 26 departments and 271 city administrations.</p> <p>Corruption is a regional issue in the Americas, with the <a href="">Corruption Perception Index</a> — measuring countries’ abilities to identify and map white-collar crimes on a scale from 0 to 100 — ranking only three Latin American nations above 50 points: <a href="">Costa Rica</a>, Chile, and Uruguay. With just 35 points, Brazil&#8217;s corruption issues could serve as a <a href="">barrier to the country&#8217;s accession</a> to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).</p> <h2>Causes of corruption</h2> <p>According to Fabiano Angélico, Ph.D. candidate at think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas and senior researcher at Transparency International, the current situation in Latin America — but especially in Brazil — occurs as a result of many factors, both contemporary and historical. Brazil&#8217;s current political situation, with the government at constant war with the press and democratic institutions, only worsens this situation.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The increase of the money flow, due to measures to fight the virus, aggravates this scenario of corruption. We have to think that fighting it is already a challenge during normal times. Imagine now, with the biggest pandemic in a century,” he tells<strong> The Brazilian Report.</strong></p> <p>To create a scenario of transparency and allow institutions to be trusted, the country needs to strengthen its anti-corruption fight, but also develop a system that closes loopholes and doesn&#8217;t allow these crimes to occur in the first place. Mr. Angélico believes examples must come from above.</p> <p>&#8220;You need support from top management to set an example. When you have this kind of protection, it enforces legislation and institutional strength. You need to think about it as a net: a transparent society needs good freedom of the press, the trust of bureaucrats, and good organizations of control. Brazil has the opposite of this, mainly due to the irresponsibility of the president,” he says.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s contradictions</h2> <p>Last Friday, President Jair Bolsonaro gave a prime example to the nation that his anti-corruption message — which propelled him to victory in the 2018 election — is a case of &#8216;do as I say, but not as I do.&#8217; In <a href="">footage of an April 22 cabinet meeting</a>, made public after a decision by Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello, Mr. Bolsonaro speaks about interfering with the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro in order to protect his own family, which may be construed as an illegal act of corruption. If the most powerful people can employ these exceptions, then it may be seen as acceptable for the rest of the population.</p> <p>This scene is repeated across Latin America, where several national leaders preach for the need for a more honest society, despite engaging in their own misdeeds.</p> <p>The Central American nation of Costa Rica stands out as an example to the contrary. Despite not having its own Access to Information Act, the country is the best-ranked nation in Latin America on the <a href="">Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2020 press freedom barometer</a>. Out of a list of 180, Costa Rica lies in seventh place.</p> <p>“This is also related to a long history and tradition of political instability and stability. With the exception of Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, which are outliers in the region, most countries in Latin America still face the effects of having been occupied colonies,” the expert adds. With or without the pandemic, Latin America seems to be far from a solution.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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