Adding to the long string of political friction in the Latin American region, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina announced his resignation two weeks ago, after months of protests demanding his impeachment and accusing him of being the leader in a complex political corruption scheme. The former president, along with several high ranking officials in Guatemala, were recently pushed out of their positions or resigned from office in shame due to the scheme, which involved head officials of state accepting bribes and other kickbacks from foreign companies in exchange for waiving high import tariff fees. The multi-million dollar scandal, known as La Linea, is said to have brought in nearly $3.7 million in bribes for officials involved, whilst begging a question that the region cannot shake: why are Latin American nations so corrupt?

Some may try to argue that the corruption is inherent, that there is something about the region as a whole, something about the people and their “passion” that makes nations from Latin America more prone to violence or corrupt policies. However, those who hold this opinion fail to recognize the complex history of Latin America; the past century of colonialism marks current policy like an inescapable shadow and constructs a political landscape in Latin America in which corruption is commonplace. They also fail to realize how corrupt every single nation in the world is, and the role Western media plays in the portrayal of Latin American corruption and Latin America itself.

 

Corruption in Latin America: Why and How?

There was a very different purpose in Spanish exploration than there was in British exploration. Both came to the New World looking for resources, however, while the British sent settlers, the Spanish sent conquistadors. The English planned to stay for a long time, to set up communities for religious freedom. The Spanish came to conquer, to force the natives into submission, to pillage and plunder and then return to Spain. This is key to understanding why Latin America has developed the way it has today.

Latin America was created as a dependent. The economy of the Spanish colonies was solely dependent and supportive of the economy in Spain. Social and cultural environments were strictly enforced, institutional racism existent in a hierarchy valuing the Spanish-born over mixed-race, pushing natives and black people to the lowest caste, and valuing the Catholic church over all else. Most importantly however, is that governance was not autonomous at all. Spain sent representatives to act as local leaders who strictly answered to the Spanish king. Therefore, even upon revolution, when the Latin American nations finally broke free from physical Spanish chains, the mental ones still existed. These new nations had never had to lead themselves, and, moreover, were ingrained with a deep mistrust of other nations and authority. Their only experiences with leaders were with those who took advantage of situations for personal gain, and the trend continued. The current political landscape of corruption was the result of years of Spanish oppression.

Although oftentimes corrupt leader are operating in cahoots with other officials, a good number of times corrupt officials are also influenced by other nations. Latin America has become a battlefield for a subtle sort of contemporary Cold War, a soft chess game between the United States and China. Both make great efforts to spread their influence in the nations of Latin America; for example, one of the most popular and successful banks in Argentina is ICBC, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Another example is American involvement in the alleged suicide of Alberto Nisman, an Argentine lawyer who accused the Argentine government of protecting Iran’s involvement in a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires. Some argue that Nisman’s close ties to American and Israeli influences are the reason why he accused Iran at all, since he made the accusation without a formal investigation or legitimate evidence against Iran. Regardless of whether it was true or not, one fact remains: Latin America is seen as a background for greater powers to flex their muscles.

 

Latin America is More Than Corruption

For leaders in Latin America, to not adjust to the corrupt political landscape is to commit political suicide. Corruption has existed in these countries for so long that it has become commonplace. The institutions in Latin American countries are weak, which is the result of depending on Spanish institutions for so long. However, what scholars from the region often find infuriating is the endless association between Latin America and corruption, as if the two words are synonymous. Yes, there is corruption in these countries, but is there not corruption in every country in the world? Is there not more to Latin American nations than corruption? Further, is it not perhaps a bit disingenuous to group all these very different nations under one offhand label, Latin America, and then accuse them of being so alike? This view of Latin America is incredibly problematic and lessens the value of Latin American nations on the world stage.

This past August, U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump threw out a reporter from Univision at one of his rallies for talking out of turn. However, what was more offensive than the actual physical action of throwing him out was the comment Trump made just before security escorted him out. “Sit down. Go back to Univision.” Go back to Univision — as if being a reporter from Univision was something to be ashamed of, as if it was an insignificant actor on the world stage. The world’s most prominent Spanish-speaking network, written off as an insult. Would Trump had said this to a reporter from another network? NBC? BBC? Aljazeera? “Go back to NBC” doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it, does it?

Unfortunately, Trump is not alone in his view of Latin America. To the world, Latin America is a hotbed of corruption, a battlefield to spread influence, a prop on the world stage. The reality is that corruption is not inherent in the region – it was institutionalized. However, Latin American nations do have their own voices and cultures, and the people of Latin America are some of the most politically active people in the world and are not afraid to share that voice. Of the 20 countries in Latin America, 13 are democracies with compulsory voting. In countries like Uruguay and Brazil, being versed in politics is just as commonplace as being versed in popular music. The question “Why are Latin American nations so corrupt?” seems hypocritical when compared to corruption scandals in the United States, a nation whose voter turnout stands at a measly 60%, or in China, where President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has already removed hundreds of Chinese officials. Yet when thinking of China or the United States, one does not immediately think, “But why is the United States so corrupt?” or “But why is China so corrupt?” Corruption exists everywhere. Latin America has different reasons for its corruption culture, but is it not a special snowflake in the world of corruption; Guatemala is not the first ever nation to have a president resign or to put a former president on trial. Latin America is merely a group of nations finding their footing in generally young governments, hoping to eventually enter the world stage with the respect they deserve.

This article was written by Stephanie Ulan. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Jiayu Zhu

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