South America: can a continent conquer corruption in 2019?

Written by Jake Plenderleith on Monday January 7, 2019

US politics inevitably tends to attract greater scrutiny than anywhere else in the Americas. Regrettably, this often obscures that which is unfolding in the southern half of the continent, where very interesting – often odd, sometimes distressing – events are taking place. Last year was a case in point.

Emblematic of the way politics can unfold in the most extraordinary manner in South America was the imprisonment of Lula da Silva. That the former Brazilian president (2003–2011) is serving a prison sentence for passive corruption and money laundering in a building which as president he opened (outside, there is a plaque with his name on it) is a bizarre twist of fate, made more surreal by the fact that he subsequently mounted a campaign for the Brazilian presidency from his cell – all of which is mildly comical until you remember that Brazil is the fifth most populous nation on the planet. 

It was another story from Brazil that proved enough to turn eyes away from goings on in the United States (albeit briefly) with the presidential election victory of Jair Bolsonaro, a populist with an ostensibly close relationship with the US president, who officially assumed his position on 1 January this year. Akin to Trump’s electoral refrain to ‘drain the swamp’, fighting corruption has been one of the key themes of Bolsonaro’s campaign.

The appointment by Bolsonaro of Sergio Moro as justice minister, famed in Brazil for his prosecution of cases in the Operation Car Wash bribery and corruption scandal (including Lula), suggests that Bolsonaro could oversee a marriage of his words and actions. Nearly 30 people have been sentenced on corruption charges in relation to Operation Car Wash by Moro and he is the public face of the Car Wash prosecutions in Brazil.

He has been criticised for the means by which he obtains justice, and for being politically motived in his prosecutions, yet it is difficult not to welcome the robustness and speed with which those who have committed corruption have been apprehended and charged by Moro. It indicates a real desire to eradicate corruption from Brazilian society, where it has inflicted so much damage. It is anybody’s guess whether this approach will be maintained during 2019 now that Moro is part of the government.


Sadly, last year’s other most discussed topic was an acceleration in the very steep demise of Venezuela. The country has a dreadful Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (2017) score of 169/180, unhappily sandwiched between Iraq and Equatorial Guinea. Obscene hyperinflation, a lack of basic products in supermarkets and swathes of people exiting its borders (since 2015, two million people have left) are the symptoms of the country’s malaise. 

To attempt to arrest Venezuela’s economic nosedive a cryptocurrency was introduced, the Petro. As noted by Forbes’ Frances Coppola, a government-issued cryptocurrency is something of an oxymoron and it has not worked. It seems likely that in Venezuela things will have to get worse before they can get better.

The causes of Venezuela’s problems are myriad and manifold, but it is indisputable that corruption is inflicting catastrophic harm on the economy, and is hampering the country’s ability to develop. Indeed, until corruption is taken on there is little to no chance of Venezuela fully recovering as a state capable of providing food and other basic services to its citizens.


Returning to Brazil, one story I have kept an eye on over the last two years is that of Odebrecht, the energy and construction conglomerate that since 2015 has been forced to clear up the detritus of its own explosive corruption scandal. Odebrecht’s corruption and bribery was pan-continental, and is still going before the courts.

For some there is a certain amount of schadenfreude in seeing Odebrecht dragged before prosecutors across South America, including most recently in Colombia. But one cannot quite escape the feeling that it is also like opening an old wound; nearly five years on from Operation Car Wash there is still so much more left to uncover, and it is clear the scale of the problem is greater than was previously thought. The necessary work of holding Odebrecht to account in the courts also has the unintended consequence of revealing just how much further there is to go.

However, the last few years should have hammered in the message that there are no certainties in global politics, and 2019 could be the year we see a dramatic sea-change in how corruption is viewed in South America. The next twelve months will see general elections in Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. The first of these countries is another witnessing a former leader go on trial in the form of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has been charged with bribery. Immune from imprisonment as a current senator, but not prosecution, perhaps another former leader being found guilty will be the instigator of real change across the continent.


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