This article first appeared in El Mostrador on March 25, 2021.
Corruption is one of the major problems afflicting the world, because it brings with it distrust, uncertainty and injustice, because it deepens social inequality, affects the daily lives of ordinary citizens, reduces opportunities for the poorest and compromises democracy itself.
And it is the least developed economies that are most exposed to corruption and, therefore, those that need the greatest efforts to contain it. This does not mean that rich countries are immune to this problem, but one of the factors that could explain why there is more or less corruption is the strength of their democratic institutions and, therefore, the sense of greater or lesser justice and equality.
Although there have been efforts to curb corruption, Latin America stands as one of the most corrupt regions, being the protagonist of major scandals that surprised the world and showed us how large mafias operated in full view and patience of all, with relative ease and under the protection of political and economic power, undermining public faith and trust of Latin American society.
Thus, we can recall the emblematic case of Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company that allegedly paid bribes and kickbacks to politicians in that country, which acquired worldwide fame by exporting its corruption model to 12 countries, involving presidents and former presidents. Or “the case of the notebooks” in Argentina, a plot in which the payment of bribes to businessmen and former Kirchnerist officials was discovered, after their names appeared in eight notebooks that show a huge network of bribes during “the K era”. In both cases, it is evident how there are companies with a commercial strategy aimed at defrauding in a favorable environment to do so and that, when faced with the evidence or when they are discovered, they resort to the universal justification that “everyone does it” or that it is the only way to access a system, in itself, corrupt.
And what happens in Chile? For years we thought we were a country free of corruption, until we opened our eyes and realized that corruption existed and was bigger than we thought. Cases such as Ceresita, Penta, SQM, Caval, Corpesca, Tecnodata and many more were reported in the press, until today we came across the great scandal surrounding Itelecom, of which we still have no real idea of its implications, but which has shown us the worst side of “doing business” through unscrupulous actions, which even used people in street situations to defraud the State.
Facts like these have led Latin American governments to implement and reinforce anti-corruption measures, which together with deeper investigations and convictions of the protagonists, have given some sense of progress in this fight. However, the reality is not entirely encouraging, as pointed out by the latest Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 of Transparency International, which revealed that in Latin America only 3 of the 19 countries analyzed are above the accepted levels, Chile being one of them (along with Uruguay and Costa Rica), which in turn does not mean that corruption is under control or that we have to be satisfied.
And precisely the pandemic context has deepened corruption, since, in the face of the emergency, governments had to provide additional resources, which were allocated through accelerated public procurement processes, without tenders and with less protocols. Thus, we learned about overpricing of medical supplies and food boxes, direct contracting and we even saw how authorities in Argentina, Peru and Ecuador “jumped the queue” to access the vaccine against COVID-19, turning the right to be vaccinated into the privilege of the powerful in Latin America.
This is an important warning about the urgency of preventing corruption. We cannot wait for Latin American countries to decrease their inequality and increase their GDP per capita to take care of this problem. We need states to implement local reforms, increase investigative efforts and increase penalties. However, in the face of weak governments, shrinking economies and an unchecked health emergency in the region, we need the private sector. But not only as an entity that commits not to commit crimes, but also to promote active participation in prevention and in denouncing irregular acts, wherever they come from.
It is time for companies to move from talk to action and not wait for stricter regulations to define their standards against corruption, but to assume their responsibility and commitment to a fairer and more equitable society.
We do not need repentant heroes who, after being discovered, commit themselves to this fight. On the contrary, it is important to stop normalizing anti-probity behaviors, especially justifying them because they were committed by a friend or someone from the “close circle”.
This crisis is an opportunity to use the reputational capital gained, to be an example to your peers and to differentiate yourself from those who aim to achieve goals under ethical standards, to those who want success no matter what.
By: Susana Sierra