The convictions of former Latin American presidents

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 21, 2017


Last week’s conviction of former Brazil president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2009) and the 18-month pre-trial detention of former Peru president Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) and his wife Nadine Heredia represent this year’s most significant developments in the ongoing investigations triggered by the Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) campaign finance and corruption scandal in Brazil. Unfortunately, there should be only cautious optimism expressed about the progress of the fight against corruption in the region.


Ever since the Car Wash scandal thrust Brazilian politics into turmoil in 2014, the repercussions of the investigation — initially led by investigative federal judge Sergio Moro — have sent shockwaves throughout Latin America. The investigation uncovered an extensive network of illegal campaign contributions, kickbacks and bribes paid by Brazilian companies to Latin American politicians in exchange for government contracts and special treatment.


The scandals have shown that Latin American campaign finance systems are susceptible to being captured by special interests. Voters, who think elected representatives will defend their interests and deliver on their promises, end up disappointed when politicians defend the interests of those who finance their campaigns. Discontent with democratic institutions grows as people think the system is tilted against them and in favour of big businesses.


Combatting corruption should be a priority in all democracies, especially those where campaign finance regulation is lax. However, if the fight against corruption reflects the same unlevel playing-field, where one political sector is targetted while others are treated with more leniency, there will be a negative effect on the trust people place in institutions. In fact, if the judicial system applies a heavy hand to some of the politicians suspected of wrongdoing but lets others off the hook because of their political inclinations or due to the office they currently occupy, voters will come to see the judicial power as part of the same corruption scheme that has tainted the political process.


Though many have celebrated that former presidents are no longer immune to judicial investigations probing wrongdoing, in both Peru and Brazil other high-level politicians who have been implicated by the same people whose testimonies led to the Lula’s conviction and the jailing of Humala have not yet been the subject of investigations. In Brazil, the sentence handed down to the former Workers’ Party leader stands in sharp contrast to the situation facing President Michel Temer. Despite the incriminating evidence against him, Temer remains in power. It is true that he has been accused and that there is an ongoing process in the Chamber of Deputies that might end up impeaching him and removing him from office, but the president’s future does not depend on the merits of the accusation solely but on his ability to retain the loyalty of the coalition that brought him to power, which deposed ex-president Dilma Rousseff in the process. If Temer survives, it will be because he displayed better political skills than Rousseff — not because the evidence against him is any less damaging than the evidence that was used to depose Dilma.


In Peru, the aftershocks of the Car Wash scandal have already resulted in the incarceration of Humala and Heredia, as well as an arrest warrant against former president Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), who has announced that he will not be returning to Peru to face trial. Since former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) is already serving time for human rights violations and corruption, three of the last four presidents of the country are in legal trouble. The other, Alan García (1985-1990 and 2006-2011) has also been implicated in the scandal involving illegal payments and campaign contributions made by Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant, but — so far at least — he has managed to avoid being indicted. Since current President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) served as a finance minister and prime minister under the Toledo government, many Peruvians suspect that PPK was aware of the irregularities that took place under Toledo. Kuczynski has vehemently denied any involvement in wrongdoing, and he has called for any government official involved in a corruption scandal to be banned from occupying a government position for life. Yet, the way he has handled the accusations levelled at some of his cabinet ministers, allegedly for giving special treatment given to a construction company linked to high government officials that won a bid to build a new airport in Cusco have fed speculations that PPK is less strict with his allies than with his adversaries when it comes to transparency and probity.


Lula’s conviction in Brazil — which will be appealed, the former president denies any wrondoing — and the pre-trial detention of Humala in Peru might eventually turn out to be significant steps in the fight against corruption and the capture of the state by special interests in Latin America, but unless the judicial system shows that it is applying the same yardstick to all politicians, regardless of their party affiliation and irrespective of the position they currently hold, Latin American voters might end up seeing the jailing of former presidents not as evidence of a new era of probity and zero tolerance on corruption, but as confirmation of their suspicion that the entire system is corrupt.