With an average score of 43 for the fourth consecutive year on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the Americas region fails to make significant progress in the fight against corruption. While Canada is consistently a top performer, with a score of 77 out of 100, the country dropped four points since last year and seven points since 2012. At the bottom of the index, Venezuela scores 16, which is also one of the bottom five scores globally.
The region faces significant challenges from political leaders acting in their own self-interest at the expense of the citizens they serve. Specifically, political party financing and electoral integrity are big challenges.
For example, the Lava Jato investigation, or “Operation Car Wash”, which exposed corruption spanning at least 10 countries in Latin America, points to a surge in illegal political contributions or donations as part of one of the biggest corruption scandals in history.
Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant at the heart of the case, was convicted for paying US$1 billion in bribes over the past 15 years, including to political leaders in Brazil, Peru and Argentina during elections.
With scores of 22 and 29 respectively, Nicaragua and Mexico are significant decliners on the CPI since 2012. Although the recent Global Corruption Barometer – Latin America and the Caribbean highlights vote-buying and other corruption issues in Mexico, a recent anti-corruption reform, along with a new, legally autonomous attorney general’s office are positive changes.
In Nicaragua, social unrest and human rights violations are on the rise. Public services and consultative decision-making are sorely lacking in the country.
Corruption is also at the centre of the recent social and political crisis in Chile, which scores 67 on this year’s CPI. A significant decliner since 2014, Chile recently reached a turning point in anti-corruption. After years of economic and social inequality, citizens are demanding transparency and less impunity from the country’s judicial system.
With a score of 26, Guatemala significantly declined by seven points since 2012. The non-renewal of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has likely impacted anti-corruption efforts. A weak public prosecutor's office and a dismantled national civil police force contribute to the problem. Pro-impunity laws and important cases, such as “La Línea”, are fraught with challenges given that judges are often under attack.
With a score of 40, Guyana is a significant improver on the CPI since 2012. While there is still much work to do, the government is demonstrating political will to hold former politicians accountable for the misuse of state resources.
Ecuador, which increased seven points since 2016, earned a score of 38 on this year’s index. These improvements could be related to a recent national referendum and popular consultation which establishes presidential term limits and prevents those convicted of corruption from serving in public office.
Country to watch: US
With a score of 69, the United States drops two points since last year to earn its lowest score on the CPI in eight years. This comes at a time when Americans’ trust in government is at an historic low of 17 per cent, according to the Pew Research Center.
The US faces a wide range of challenges, from threats to its system of checks and balances, and the ever-increasing influence of special interests in government, to the use of anonymous shell companies by criminals, corrupt individuals and even terrorists, to hide illicit activities.
While President Trump campaigned on a promise of “draining the swamp” and making government work for more than just Washington insiders and political elites, a series of scandals, resignations and allegations of unethical behaviour suggest that the “pay-to-play” culture has only become more entrenched.
In December 2019, the US House of Representatives formally impeached President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
A whistleblower complaint sparked the impeachment process, providing a powerful reminder of the need to protect, and expand, the legal and everyday environment for whistleblowers and to avoid the shame and blame that ensues if their identities are revealed.
Country to watch: Canada
With a score of 77, Canada dropped four points since last year and, more significantly, seven points since 2012.
In recent years, Canada’s money laundering problem, or "snow-washing", came into the spotlight. E-Pirate, a 2019 case involving a shell company that laundered hundreds of millions of dollars from China, is a good example of the challenges of hiding the true owner of a company from the public eye.
In addition to corruption at home, Canada is also contributing to corruption abroad. In our recent report, Exporting Corruption, Canada’s compliance with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention fell from “moderate” to “limited”.
Low enforcement of anti-corruption laws is evident in the recent case against SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian construction company, which allegedly paid US$48 million in bribes to Libyan officials.
Canada is becoming a popular jurisdiction to wash illegitimate assets, conduct business through anonymous companies and avoid taxes.
Country to watch: Brazil
Corruption remains one of the biggest impediments to economic and social development in Brazil. With a score of 35, Brazil remains stagnant with its lowest CPI score since 2012. After the 2018 national elections, which were strongly influenced by an anti-corruption agenda, Brazil experienced a series of setbacks to its legal and institutional anti-corruption frameworks.
The country also faced difficulties in advancing wide-ranging reforms to its political system. Setbacks included a Supreme Court injunction that virtually paralysed Brazil’s anti-money laundering system and an illegal inquiry that secretly targeted law enforcement agents. Ongoing challenges include growing political interference with anti-corruption institutions by President Bolsonaro, and congressional approval of legislation that threatens the independence of law enforcement agents and the accountability of political parties.
Progress in Brazil’s anti-corruption agenda is at risk and mounting impunity threatens to weaken democracy and destabilise the country.
Image: shutterstock / Lucy Brown
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