It is not always bad to have headlines about corruption. From the Panama Papers in April to the record US$3.5 billion Odebrecht settlement in Brazil in December, 2016 was a good year in the fight against corruption in the Americas.
The Panama Papers revealed that a Panamanian law firm helped set up thousands of secret shell companies, many of them used by corrupt politicians, criminals and tax abusers around the world. The Odebrecht settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice shed light on a company spending millions of dollars on bribing politicians and political parties across Latin America, as well as in two African countries in order to win business contracts.
The wealthy and powerful were also increasingly placed under the spotlight. The Chilean President’s daughter-in-law was charged in a corruption case, and former Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is now under investigation on corruption charges, among several other examples.
2016 was also notable in that large corruption investigations continued to jump across national borders. On cases from Odebrecht to Petrobras and FIFA, we see increasing communication and cooperation among regulators and law enforcement throughout the region and also with their counterparts in Europe and the United States.
The fight against corruption has dominated discussion in the Americas for years now, from online and traditional media to mass protests.
One thing is clear though: even if 2016 marks the start of a shift towards more active enforcement by authorities in response to these public demands, there is still a long way to go.
The average score on the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index was 44 out of 100 for the Americas. Anything below 50 indicates governments are failing to tackle corruption.
In many parts of the region, impunity continues to be a major problem. Even in countries where cases of large-scale corruption are being tackled, the risk remains that this is the result of the efforts of a small group of brave individuals rather than a long-term plan.
Venezuela, with a score of 17, is the lowest scorer in the region. Last year saw hundreds of thousands of citizens protesting against the government. In Mexico, while the government tries to clean the country’s image through a series of reforms, corruption scandals continue to escalate and the President’s approval rating is at its lowest ever. With a loss of 5 points in this year’s index, Mexico is the region’s biggest decliner.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
Perhaps as a consequence of the Panama Papers revealing the offshore holdings of many public officials, commitments to continue anti-corruption efforts were on display throughout the year. For instance, at the London Anti-Corruption Summit in May 2016, commitments to increase transparency around the real owners of anonymous shell companies were made by Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.
Citizens must keep up pressure on leaders and continue to demand the transparent, accountable and functioning institutions the region needs to make sure these and similar commitments are delivered on. Authorities in every country should ramp up their efforts to stop powerful corporate leaders and public officials from getting away with acts of Grand Corruption with impunity. This includes enhancing regional cooperation between law enforcement.
As the Panama Papers showed, the combination of whistleblowers, big data and networked journalism is proving to be a powerful force for change. In coming years, governments in the Americas will have to become more transparent, or increasingly they will find transparency forced upon them.