This article first appeared in La Segunda on April 22, 2022.
Regarding the investigation against Karina Oliva and her mention to Jackson about the campaign funds, she warns: ‘If it is proven that the government fell into the same practices that they criticized so much, the effect can be tremendous’.
At the time of this interview, Susana Sierra was on her first day of quarantine. The young commercial engineer, president of the NGO Chile Transparente, was about to return to Miami – where she now lives with her family – from Harvard, after a course on leadership and public policies, when she learned that she had tested positive for covid-19 and had to stay five days in her hotel in Massachusetts. But despite the severe headache, nothing dampens his spirits.
Harvard was incredible,” he says of the meeting, organized by the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. There were 75 of us from different countries and cultures, so the learning was priceless. Being in the U.S. has opened my mind in infinite ways’, says the anti-corruption expert and also founder 2011 of BH Compliance, created after the enactment of the Law on Criminal Liability of Legal Entities, which obliged companies to certify their preventive models.
With several Latin American firms among her clients, landing in the US was a natural evolution for Susana Sierra.
In December we came with my husband (Felipe Parker, commercial engineer, entrepreneur, and professor of entrepreneurship), and the children (13 and 10 years old) and we settled in Bay Harbor Island, by the sea, which I love’. He adds: ‘If I want to change the world, I had to take a bigger leap to reach global companies and achieve a multiplier effect’.
He admits he was lucky. A few weeks ago she received the Business Award from the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and was selected among numerous applicants for the Endeavor Scale-Up Lab program. There are only seven of us left. I think these are signs that I’m on the right track. Although it also helps to be a woman, because there are a lot of companies moving to Miami – which is becoming a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship – few of them are led by women. She reflects: ‘Generally (moving to another country) is a decision made by the man. The woman is the one who accompanies him; it is rarely the other way around… Before leaving, for Chile, they told me: but how are you going to do this to your husband… But it was a very familiar decision; none of what I have done professionally would have been possible without Felipe, who is my partner. We’ve always been partners’.
‘We are at a turning point’.
At the end of 2021, Susana Sierra published a bleak column in El Mostrador with an account of the corruption events that marked the year. There was the case of Itelecom, with the payment of bribes to several municipalities to be awarded the replacement of lighting and for which they even used homeless people to launder bribes. He also mentioned the embezzlement and fraud in the municipal corporations of Vitacura, Las Condes, Lo Barnechea and Ñuñoa. Regarding SQM, she was critical of the decision of the Public Prosecutor’s Office not to pursue the investigation against 34 defendants since the SII did not file a complaint against them (‘A bad sign that feeds the feeling of impunity and that justice acts according to who is corrupt’). And, as for the Armed Forces, of Order and Security, he repaired in the complaint of the CDE against the PDI, whose former general director, Héctor Espinosa, benefited from the reserved expenses using the same modus operandi of the former commander in chief of the Army, Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba (‘Beyond stealing money from all Chileans, the public faith is defrauded and the crisis of trust is increased, especially coming from the institutions in charge of watching over security and integrity).
-What is your evaluation so far this year?
-I want to approach it from the positive; this panorama can indeed be bleak and indeed since 2018 we have been stagnating in the Transparency International index, which indicates that there have not been many changes… But at least now things are known; in 2010, when I started working on these issues, there was no talk of corruption; when I went to companies they laughed in my face and told me that this was not for us, that this happened in neighboring countries, that in Chile corruption did not exist. But in institutional cases, such as the Army (where a fourth commander-in-chief is brought to justice), these were practices that were deeply rooted. ‘Everybody does it, was the answer, and the travel agencies did not question it because they were happy to bill more. So the fact that today we know that these things happen in Chile, where corruption does operate, is a very important step.
-Yes, but to affirm this in the middle of 2022, when at least in the Army these issues have been known about since what happened with Pinochet and the Riggs Bank, is not very encouraging…
-But it could be that we don’t know so much or that nobody cares about the subject; in Chile, we are very good at relativizing and saying that what we have is nothing compared to Peru, Argentina, Brazil…
-Today we have the biggest crisis of institutional trust in history, which is already an important factor…
-And, for the same reason, we are now at a turning point. It has been demonstrated that when trust in institutions is weakened, corruption increases; when you stop believing injustice, in the carabineros, in the Public Ministry and everyone acts according to their own beliefs, nobody demands accountability. That is why I found it very serious that shortly after the beginning of the new government, the Carabineros were discredited when an officer supposedly had assaulted a demonstrator in Plaza Italia, which later turned out not to be true and he acted in self-defense. The government must be careful not to continue doing what they did before when they pointed out that all institutions are bad without making any distinction. It must take care of them, in a transparent, rational, and objective manner in its decisions. Otherwise, if the institution is delegitimized from the authority, no official will dare to denounce when he/she witnesses anomalies, for example. When the floor is removed from the institutions, it is corruption that wins.
And he continues:
-The same thing happens with citizen awareness; it is very important that people feel they can do something. I have to talk to many people who, lowering their voices, tell me that they are witnesses of something in their workplace, but they do not dare to report it because they were taught not to interfere where it does not correspond to them. It also happens with businessmen. We are a very individualistic society where everyone thinks about their welfare. That is why my fight is the role of the private sector in the fight against corruption; it is often said that it is the public officials who act badly, but rarely is the corn husked to see what is happening on the other side… Where were the companies, why didn’t they stop the car, why didn’t they abstain? But there is fear, or the environment is uncertain. Besides the fact that this is a very small country, with few companies and everybody knows each other, how is anybody going to face a big business group or a holding company with many other companies if you are going to be left without a job?
-What protection mechanisms does a worker have, for example, in that case?
-Today the companies themselves, due to the Law of Criminal Responsibility of Legal Entities, must have prevention programs and this includes having channels for reporting. I have seen many of them working. Of course, it is easier when things happen lower down than when they come from above because it is more difficult to report. In Chile Transparente we have a reporting channel (denunciacorrupcion.cl) that is anonymous and we receive cases for this first step.
There must be a balance’.
We are a society with a very bad memory, besides… In the last elections, it was unbelievable the number of candidates who had previous cases, although prescribed, and who was elected… There we also have a responsibility because it is very easy to criticize but then who do the citizens vote for?
-Today there is an open investigation against the former candidate of the Comunes Party, Karina Oliva, which could be extended to Gabriel Boric’s primary campaign. What effect do you think it could have on public faith?
-I had hopes for this new government; since they are young, you immediately think that they can come cleaner. However, they were the ones who removed the floor from all the institutions that today govern. And with the social outburst, the generalization that all institutions are corrupt was made; it was enough for a few officials to be detected for all of them to enter into the same bag. The problem is that there is a gigantic loss of trust when what we need are solid institutions. If we remove the floor to everything and say that everything is bad, we are left with nothing, which is the worst scenario.
And about the investigation opened by the Prosecutor’s Office in the case of Karina Oliva, who defended herself in the Court of Appeals alluding to Giorgio Jackson, the president of Chile Transparente observes:
-They were the same ones who complained against the irregular financing of politics, then, if it is discovered that they also fell into the same practices, the impact can be tremendous. Who are the citizens going to believe in? If Oliva’s accusations become true, it would be a huge earthquake and what could happen to Peru could happen to us.
-Do you think so, you are not exaggerating?
-I am worried that it will happen like in populist governments, which arrive promising that they are going to put an end to corruption because it usually ends up blowing up in their faces. I hope the accusations are not real, but if it is proven that the campaigns were irregularly financed, it would be very complex, people could ask for the government’s ouster, especially because of the polarization in the country… Of course, it could also open the door to constitutional accusations. If the then opposition did it with Piñera, I don’t see why it should be different here. If something like this is discovered, confidence will go down the drain.
-Do you think that corruption issues have been present in the discussions within the Convention?
-I have not seen a 360 analysis. With the unicameralism, for example; sometimes examples are taken from Anglo-Saxon countries but we are in Chile. And the more balances and elements of accountability there are, the better. It scares me that they are focusing on leaving a lot of power to the government of the day, instead of distributing it between the executive and the legislative bodies. There must be a balance.
-The fact that power is so concentrated in a Chamber of Deputies and Deputies, and not in the Chamber of Regions (according to the draft so far), could it also represent a risk?
-When there are no balances of power, it is a factor of corruption. That is why there has not been any dictatorship in the world that has not been corrupt. I am concerned about these proposals where counterweights are being removed.
And he gives us an example of the case of parliamentary consultancies uncovered by Ciper in 2017, where 40 deputies and a group of senators, paid with their allowances to advisors for reports that turned out to be plagiarized or of very low quality.
-When the case became known and the Prosecutor’s Office began to investigate, we asked via the Transparency Law for access to all reports, both true and false, so that people could distinguish between one and the other, but in the Senate, they flatly refused despite our insistence. The Chamber of Deputies, on the other hand, did make them public, which made the situation more transparent and led to a certain improvement in practices. But when one Chamber is more powerful than the other and there is no competition, it is possible for disbanding to occur.
-What specifically is the balance between the two chambers?
-It is not that they control each other, but if the issues have to go through both instances, there are more points of view and the powers are balanced. When an institution feels that they have all the power, it is easier for them to end up being fertile ground for corruption.
-Have you been mentioned in the Convention since your role as president of Chile Transparente?
-We have participated in issues such as access to information and transparency measures, but not concerning the branches of government.
And she adds:
-The other thing that worries me is the loss of confidence in the Convention; from being the institution with the highest indexes in this sense, the constituents themselves have been in charge of deteriorating this capital. In this last part of the process, it seems important to me that there should be a concern for meeting expectations because what is at stake is public faith. It is in no one’s interest for this process to fail.