Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
President Donald Trump’s aborted trip to Latin America this week will make him the first U.S. president to skip the triennial Summit of the Americas. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence will join heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere as they try to finalize a declaration on “democratic governance against corruption,” a timely focus in light of Latin America’s recent wave of graft scandals. In selecting the theme, the host government of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski showed admirable conviction—if little prescience. Kuczynski himself will be absent, having resigned less than a month before the summit amid a corruption scandal of his own.
Trump too will now be missing in person—although perhaps not in spirit. Latin America is grappling with its own antiestablishment fever, fueled by revelations of politicians on the take. Kuczynski is the latest in a growing list of Latin American political and business leaders felled by corruption allegations, many of them similarly ensnared by connections to the sprawling investigation of the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. In a plea deal with the U.S. Department of Justice, Odebrecht confessed to paying $788 million worth of bribes to government officials in ten countries in Latin America and two in Africa. In most cases, it remains unknown who was on the receiving end of those payments, which means that additional heads are likely to roll. Nonetheless, the scope of recent prosecutions is already unprecedented, leading many observers to justifiably herald a new era of accountability for abuse of power in Latin America.
As presidents and prime ministers gather alongside business and civil society leaders in Lima, however, there is palpable apprehension about what comes next for the region’s discredited democracies. Powerful figures who have come under suspicion are striking back. And with two out of three Latin Americans living in countries set to elect a new president this year, surveys show they are deeply dissatisfied with political parties and democracy itself. Conditions appear ripe for antiestablishment candidates promising to shake up the political system, checks and balances be damned. In regional heavyweights Brazil and Mexico, polls appear to bear out this concern. In short, Latin American voters seem eager to vent their anger against a “rigged” system—and an unpredictable U.S. president could still find ways to complicate matters.
DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Many Latin Americans gaze at the United States under Trump and wonder whether their own societies’ antiestablishment impulses will produce a cure that is worse than the disease. But Trump is hardly the first or most obvious case study. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the paradigmatic example. After the 1992 mani pulite (“clean hands”) investigation ensnared some 5,000 public figures, including more than half the Italian parliament, then media tycoon Berlusconi strode onto the political scene and was elected prime minister. Far from sweeping away the inside dealing, Berlusconi became synonymous with it. One of his first acts was to issue a decree freeing many corruption suspects from jail, and over the years he fought off fraud, bribery, and other charges more than a dozen times, all the while using his office to wage war on the judiciary.
In Latin America, a not dissimilar tale explains the rise of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In 1998, Chávez ran as the charismatic outsider and truth-teller, the candidate tough enough to snuff out corruption and upend a discredited political system that simply transferred power among competing elites, even if it required tearing up the constitution to do so. Two decades later, Venezuela’s economy is in ruins, its constitutional system is dismantled, and its government is one of the most corrupt in the world.
Many in Latin America fear that history might repeat itself. They recall the recent experience of Guatemala, which, after ousting former President Otto Peréz Molina in a burst of anticorruption fervor, elected an erstwhile comedian, Jimmy Morales, on a fringe ticket, only to see him respond to a campaign finance scandal by trying to remove the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN mission.
They also point to current presidential candidates Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. Both are running as antiestablishment nationalists and promise to take on the corrupt elites. Both have provoked concerns over their commitment to democratic institutions. In the case of López Obrador, who leads the polls in Mexico, suspicions of the candidate’s intentions are driven in part by his leftist ideology and in part by his personalistic tendencies and lack of governing vision. In the case of Bolsonaro, the causes for concern are more straightforward. Currently second in the polls behind former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (who will almost certainly be ruled out due to a corruption conviction), Bolsonaro has a history of making racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments, and he is an apologist for torture, police violence, and the country’s military dictatorship.
There is a genuine risk that Latin America’s past will be prologue, that today’s corruption scandals will inevitably fuel tomorrow’s demagogues. The notion is not farfetched. Such fatalism would be a serious mistake, however. Its logical extension is to contend that the political and economic risk of exposing systemic corruption is too high, and that accountability efforts should be somehow short-circuited in the interest of stability. Arguments to this effect have begun to gain steam, including from segments of the business community.
To be sure, brushing graft under the rug might postpone the political reckoning for a time. But allowing it to fester below the surface is hardly a recipe for long-term democratic durability. It ignores the evidence that corruption is a constraint on economic development, as well as the circumstances that gave rise to Peru’s authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s and the illiberal Bolivarian movements of the following decade.
Developing independent and effective judicial systems has proved perhaps the most stubborn institution-building endeavor in Latin America.
Developing independent and effective judicial systems has proved perhaps the most stubborn institution-building endeavor in Latin America, one which continues to vex most countries in the region more than a generation after they transitioned to democracy. As former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has said, his country has three challenges: “rule of law, rule of law, and rule of law.”
Against this backdrop, the current proliferation of corruption prosecutions is striking in two ways. First, its technical sophistication, including the use of multi-jurisdictional plea bargaining and the tracking of illicit financial flows across borders. Second, the sight of powerful politicians and billionaires serving real jail time for abusing the public trust. Undercutting Latin America’s judiciaries when they are at last showing the independence and will to pursue erstwhile untouchables would not insulate the region’s democracies but weaken them in lasting ways.
What the region needs instead is political renewal, specifically leaders of personal rectitude who can deliver credible pledges to reform institutions rather than facile promises to break them and start again. It is possible, though certainly more challenging, to seize the antiestablishment fervor from the radical center instead of the extreme fringes—as French President Emmanuel Macron did in beating back the challenge of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
In countries like Brazil, perhaps unsurprisingly, some have looked to the judges themselves as an alternative to a corrupt political class. Joaquim Barbosa, a former chief justice and the Supreme Court’s first black judge, appears to be preparing a presidential run. In theory, drafting a jurist could offer an antidote to Brazil’s polarization and disaffection, but Barbosa’s transition from courtroom to politics risks fueling perceptions of an overly politicized judiciary. Perhaps more promising in the long term are the indications that young, accomplished Brazilians are turning their disruptive instincts to cleaning up their country’s politics.
HOW TRUMP COULD MAKE THINGS WORSE
From a U.S. foreign policy standpoint, this makes for a challenging regional landscape—and Trump is just as likely to contribute to the chaos as he is to mitigate it. With him out of the picture, Pence’s appearance at the Summit of the Americas should be fairly straightforward. In contrast to summits past—which were overtaken by debates on U.S. drug policy or its relations with Cuba—this one is not destined to focus on the United States. Latin American corruption is mostly homegrown, as are the efforts to combat it. And to the extent that any issue overshadows the official agenda, it will be the crisis in Venezuela—notwithstanding Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration and his recent decision to deploy National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico.
Moreover, the United States has been an important supporting actor in the region’s accountability efforts. The Department of Justice’s enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, particularly in the Odebrecht case, has provided information and leverage to prosecutors in Latin America. And strong U.S. bipartisan support for CICIG in Guatemala—including from the Trump administration—has been crucial to the mission’s survival and success. Pence, whatever his boss’s limitations as an exemplar of government transparency, can score points by aligning the United States with the region’s corruption fighters and recalling U.S. contributions to rule of law in the region—provided that he avoids paternalism.
Still, the summit will be a missed opportunity for the president to articulate a positive agenda for relations with the hemisphere. For all its commendable efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela, the Trump administration’s approach to Latin America is based fundamentally on addressing perceived threats rather than seizing opportunities. On issues that disproportionately affect the region—immigration, to be sure, but also trade and drugs—the administration is building walls, not bridges. Previous visits to Latin America by Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were intended to show a softer side of U.S. policy but ended up being overshadowed, respectively, by Trump’s threat of military action in Venezuela and Tillerson’s tone-deaf revival of the Monroe Doctrine. Little wonder that Trump’s approval rating in the region is an abysmal 16 percent.
Pragmatic Latin American leaders may decide that the best policy is to simply lay low and diversify their partnerships—as some are already doing, especially in Asia. Nonetheless, Trump’s improvisational brand of presidentialism could soon intersect with Latin America’s turbulent electoral politics, potentially exacerbating the corruption-fueled populism and antiestablishmentism of the moment. Brazil’s Bolsonaro is an outspoken admirer of Trump, while Mexico’s López Obrador is no fan. Trump, not known to spurn flattery or shirk a fight, will have ample opportunity to respond in kind to praise or provocation. On a visit to the southern border last month, he made a thinly veiled reference to López Obrador, remarking that some Mexican candidates “aren’t that good.” The news made headlines across Mexico and predictably boosted López Obrador’s campaign. As Trump’s hemispheric counterparts gather this week in Lima, disappointment at his decision to skip the Summit of the Americas may be mixed with quiet sighs of relief.