Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski recently resigned on the eve of an impeachment vote over his administration’s corruption. In Brazil, there are seemingly endless scandals involving purchased government favoritism for Petrobras and Odebrecht. Eight former Mexican governors face charges for corruption. Transparency International rates the region as one of the worst in the world for dealing with government officials. Even more than Latin America’s swing to the left 10 years ago, corruption threatens to bring misery and insecurity to the region. Corrupt nations do not attract the foreign investment the region desperately needs.
At the end of the 1980s, the prospects for democracy in Latin America looked better than they had in over a century. Every nation in the region, except for Fidel Castro’s Cuba, was either democratic or undeniably moving in that direction. Even in Nicaragua under the Sandinista and in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, dictators would be decisively defeated. Under President Reagan, the U.S. government abandoned its longstanding policy of supporting right-wing dictators. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the threat (and the attraction) of communism all but disappeared. The region entered the 21st century confident in the resiliency and permanence of its democratic institutions.
Democracy’s beleaguered status in Latin America cannot be attributed to a single cause, but its biggest enemy, by far, is corruption. It does more than erode confidence in government. Corruption erodes confidence in human nature itself, and thus undercuts democracy at its deepest metaphysical core. With a problem of this magnitude, there are no quick or easy solutions, but understanding the causes is a vital first step.
Corruption comes from the combination of excessive government power and insufficient intra-government competition. The first puts government officials in charge of too many people’s lives and livelihoods. The second insures that bribery and lucrative conflicts of interest take place without accountability. Overlaying the entire system is a political culture, resulting from decades of dictatorship, that permits officials to steal without a pang of conscience, and convinces private citizens that redress is impossible.
Every element of the corruption epidemic can be addressed through federalism on the North American model, an example that Latin American nations would do well to imitate. This is not because state and local governments in the United States are immune from corruption. Rather, Latin America should imitate the United States because checks and balances, for the most part, have kept corruption manageable. The American Founders never promised silver bullet solutions. They only promised structures with built-in disincentives to malicious behavior.
Devolving power would attack corruption from a number of different angles. First, since local governments deal in smaller amounts of money than national governments, less illicit profit is available to start with, making a cost-benefit analysis of illegal activity more likely to result in caution. Second, barriers to the movement of people and investments among localities within a nation are low, often nonexistent. Thus, if corruption becomes a problem in one locality, people (and their money) can move. Abandoning an entire nation because of corrupt national officials is more difficult and time consuming.
Third, with real power and real resources, local officials could no longer blame the “people upstairs” for failures of public policy. Minimally, corruption would have to be tamed to the point that it did not interfere with the most basic, and visible, government functions. Finally, devolution attacks the root cause of endemic corruption, which is the culture of separation between rulers and ruled. That separation is harder to maintain on the local level, since the people who are being mistreated are psychologically (and physically) closer to the officials who govern them.
Again, federalism is no guarantee of virtue. But properly understood and implemented, devolving power raises the cost of corruption while providing built-in incentives to effective government. The father of corruption is greed, but the father of endemic corruption is cynicism, which prompts citizens to cede government to the venal, until the people get fed up, and power is wrested from the profiteers and given to the predators. Government corruption is as old as government itself, but it need not be an existential threat to democracy. To protect their democracy from corruption, Latin American citizens should turn to the solution of federalism.
Edward Lynch, Ph.D., is chair of political science at Hollins University, where he teaches courses on foreign policy and international affairs. He served in the White House under President Reagan and is the author of “The Cold War’s Last Battlefield: Reagan, the Soviets and Central America.”