Corruption is one of the world’s major problems, because it breeds distrust, uncertainty and injustice, exacerbates social inequality, affects the daily lives of ordinary citizens, reduces the opportunities of the poorest and jeopardizes democracy itself.
Less-developed economies are the most vulnerable to corruption, and therefore require the greatest efforts to contain it. This does not mean that rich countries are immune to this problem; however, one of the factors that might determine the existence of varying levels of corruption is the strength of their democratic institutions and, therefore, the sense of greater or lesser justice and equality.
Despite efforts to curb corruption, Latin America is still one of the most corrupt regions, with major scandals that have shocked the rest of the world. These scandals have shown how large mafias operate with relative ease and under the protection of political and economic power, undermining public credibility and the trust of Latin American society.
We need only recall the emblematic case of Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company that paid bribes and kickbacks to local politicians, and which became world famous after exporting its corruption model to 12 countries, involving current and former Presidents. There is also “the notebooks case” in Argentina, a case that uncovered the payment of bribes to businessmen and former Kirchnerist officials after their names appeared in eight notebooks, revealing a massive network of bribes during the K years. In both cases, it is evident that there are companies whose commercial strategy is aimed at defrauding within a context that makes it easy for them to do so; when faced with the evidence or caught out, they resort to the universal justification that “everyone else does it” or that it is the only way to work within a system that is already corrupt.
Events such as these led Latin American governments to implement and reinforce anti-corruption measures, which, together with more in-depth investigations and the convictions handed down to the perpetrators, for a time looked as though progress was being made in the struggle against corruption.
Yet, the reality is not entirely reassuring, as pointed out by Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index 2020, which revealed little progress in this area. In Latin America, only three of the 19 countries analyzed exceed the acceptable thresholds: Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica.
And it is precisely the pandemic context that has exacerbated corruption. Faced with the emergency, governments had to provide additional resources, which were allocated through accelerated public contracting processes, without public tenders and with fewer protocols. As a result, we have learnt about overpriced medical supplies, the purchase of food baskets through direct dealings, and we have even seen how authorities and high-ranking officials in countries such as Argentina, Peru and Ecuador skipped the line to get vaccinated against Covid-19, turning the right to be vaccinated into a privilege for the powerful in Latin America.
This serves as an important warning on the urgency of preventing corruption. We cannot wait for Latin American countries to reduce their inequality and increase their GDP per capita to start dealing with this problem. We need States to implement local reforms, increase investigation efforts and raise penalties. In the face of weak governments, shrinking economies and an unchecked health emergency in the region, we must rely on the private sector. This, not just as entities pledging to refrain from any wrongdoing, but that can also promote active participation in preventing and reporting irregularities, regardless of where they come from.
We have no use for repentant heroes who commit themselves to this fight only after being caught red-handed, as was the case of Brazilian businessman Joesley Batista, a shareholder of JBS. After being accused of bribing politicians—including the President at the time, Michel Temer—he swore to expose corruption in Brazil’s public structures. Why now? Are his repentance and commitment sincere? If he hadn’t been caught, would he still be driven to do this?
It’s time for companies to walk the talk and stop waiting for stricter regulations to define their anti-corruption criteria, and to shoulder their responsibility and commitment to create a fairer and more equitable society.
This crisis is an opportunity to use the acquired reputational capital, to be an example to peers and stand out among those who seek to achieve their goals ethically, against those who strive for success with no regard for how they achieve it.