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The Year Latin Americans Got Angry About Corruption

Latin Americans took to the streets during 2015 to protest against a flurry of staggering corruption scandals across the region. But while they won some battles, it is still far from clear if they can win the war.
Imagen por Moises Castillo/AP

On his first day in court in Guatemala City last September 2, Otto Pérez Molina looked nothing like the proud and self-assured man he once was.

Hours after resigning Guatemala's presidency, beads of sweat ran down the retired general's weary and defeated face as he listened to evidence of his alleged involvement in one of the biggest corruption scandals in the Central American country's history.

Pushed by the relentless sleuthing of a United Nations backed anti-corruption agency, authorities revealed a network of public officials who pocketed millions of dollars in bribes by allowing companies to avoid paying customs duties in April. In the months that followed the investigation led to the arrest of dozens of high-profile officials and toppled the vice president, before finally putting Pérez Molina himself before a judge.


Related: Jailed Former President of Guatemala Wants a TV

Outside the stuffy courtroom Guatemalans rejoiced. The country has suffered decades of civil war and human rights atrocities, continuous grinding poverty, and rampant violent crime. Pérez Molina's fall because of a corruption scandal was the first sign that impunity — even for the most powerful — may no longer be the natural state of affairs.

Photo by Jan-Albert Hoosten. Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina on his first day in court.

While the fall of Guatemala's president stood out, the outpouring of public anger that helped force it was not unique. Angry citizens took to the streets from Mexico to Chile and from Brazil to Honduras to protest against a flurry of staggering corruption scandals across the region. Together they turned 2015 into the year that ordinary Latin Americans chose to fight back.

"Corruption remains deeply embedded in Latin American political and social life," former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda wrote in the current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. "Yet the outraged reactions to the wave of scandals currently sweeping the continent may be the first sign that Latin American publics are no longer prepared to tolerate systemic dishonesty in their governments."

But can they win?

The scandals hit big and small nations alike, and appeared blind to ideological identification.

Related: The Year the 'Pink Tide' Turned: Latin America in 2015

In the region's superpowers — Brazil and Mexico — President Dilma Rousseff and President Enrique Peña Nieto both faced allegations of corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of power.


The popularity of Rousseff and her leftist Workers' Party (PT) dropped to single digits this year, in part over a massive kickback scheme involving state-controlled oil company Petrobras that was first revealed in March 2014. As the scale of the corruption became clearer, anger boiled over this spring with hundreds of thousands of Brazilians taking to the streets.

Photo by Andre Penner/AP. Demonstrators against corruption in Sao Paolo carry a doll of President Dilma Rousseff

The investigation — Operation Car Wash — alleges that Petrobras officials accepted millions of dollars in bribes by granting contracts at inflated prices. Dozens of people have been arrested.

Rousseff herself has not, so far, been directly implicated in the graft that took place when she headed Petrobras. Still, the scandal has contributed to the weakening of her position to the point where she is now facing an impeachment process over allegedly cooking the country's accounts.

Related: Brazil Opens Impeachment Proceedings Against President Rousseff

In Mexico, the allegations implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto are of an even more personal kind.

An investigation published in November 2014 on the news website run by crusading journalist Carmen Aristegui revealed that the president's wife, former soap opera star Angélica Rivera, had bought a multi-million dollar mansion in one the capital's most swanky neighborhoods from a firm that has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts in recent years.

The owner of the firm, Gupo Higa, has a personal friendship with Peña Nieto dating back at least to the time the latter was governor of the State of Mexico between 2005 and 2011. Soon after the so-called Casa Blanca, or White House, scandal broke, Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray was also revealed to have bought a holiday residence built by Grupo Higa.


Related: Mexico's President And First Lady Face Scandal Over Lavish 'White House' Mansion

The revelations helped fuel the demonstrations over the government's handling of last year's disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state, a crime allegedly committed by members of organized crime in league with local police. The marches have since lost their original force, but a deep frustration remains at the president's protestations that he had nothing to do with the property deals of his wife, despite the fact that the mansion in question was specifically designed for the presidential family to live in after he leaves office in 2018.

Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP. Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto (right) appoints Virgilio Andrade to head an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing behind his wife's purchase of a mansion

An internal investigation ordered by the president — and headed by an official he personally appointed — cleared both Peña Nieto and Videgaray of any wrongdoing in August. It did nothing to quell the suspicions of foul play, or the sense of unfinished business.

Related: Mexicans Outraged — But Not Surprised — After Crony Clears President in 'White House' Scandal

Meanwhile, in Chile, President Michelle Bachelet's son Sebastián Dávalos resigned as head of a presidential charity in February. Accused of having used his family ties and personal influence to get a loan, which his wife then used in some very lucrative real estate deals, the scandal caused great embarrassment for Bachelet.

A social democrat who was detained and tortured during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Bachelet had enjoyed enormous popularity during her first term from 2006 to 2010 and was voted into office for a second time last year. She is now battling against public opinion that has turned against her. The scandal involving her son only compounded by later revelations of a tax and campaign financing scandal.


Related: Chile's Bachelet 'Redirects Attention' From Corruption Scandals With Call For a New Constitution

In Central America, Honduras has seemed at times on the point of following the route laid out in Guatemala.

President Juan Orlando Hernández's governing party is accused of running a massive kickback scheme in which the national social security service bought medical products for suspiciously high prices.

Hondurans have been struggling for years to cope with endemic poverty and extreme levels of criminal violence, but it was the corruption scandal that galvanized massive marches through the country's cities with protesters bearing torches and demanding that Hérnandez should go.

Related: Immigrant America: Murder and Migration in Honduras

Given that corruption in Latin America is nothing new, some observers look to the economy to explain the recent explosion of public anger.

High levels of commodity-driven growth in the first decade of the 21st century lifted millions out of poverty and into the middle class where, the argument goes, they acquired higher expectations that were inevitably frusrated by political elites that have not modernized at anything like the same pace.

"People now demand more. They have higher expectations for better services, for a more transparent state and more accountable politicians," said Christopher Sabatini, a scholar at Columbia University and editor of the opinion website Latin America Goes Global. "The tolerance for corruption is evaporating as economic growth declines."


Many Latin American countries did enjoy what Sabatini calls "eye-popping growth" before the region lost its dynamism in the past few years. Brazil is now seemingly entrenched in a full-blown recession, while Chile and Mexico continue to suffer sluggish growth, with the latter even adding millions to the numbers living in poverty.

Related: Here's Why Everyone Is So Pissed at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

But, according to Greg Weeks, a political scientist and Latin America expert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, economic decline after hopes had been raised doesn't tell the whole story. He points out that while the economy is a major factor contributing to public anger in Brazil, particularly given the government's efforts to impose austerity, in Guatemala the economy has been relatively stable.

"One thing that does link all these protests, is that people see other people protesting. There is a copycat effect. Social media is helping to make those linkages. People are reading about what happens in other countries, even though the context is different," he said.

"People don't want a change of government, they want a better functioning government," he added. "The commitment to democracy in Latin America is stronger than it has ever been."

Other observers say the protests are less a matter of economic cycles, communication technology, or a modernizing and maturing citizenry, and more an issue of deeply ingrained systemic problems in dysfunctional democracies that are reaching some kind of breaking point.


According to the polling firm Latinobarometro, only 37 percent of Latin Americans currently feel satisfied with democracy decades after the region began shedding its history of dictatorship for elected governments.

"I think the demonstrations say something about the superficial way countries have become democratic", said John Ackerman, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). "Democracy in Latin America has been built by old elites. If you look at the way democracies have been built after the civil wars in Central American countries, but also in countries such as Brazil and Chile, it was done in a way that has been unsatisfactory to many."

AP file photo of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet

Whatever the trigger, the power of the protests to force lasting change has yet to be fully tested.

The corruption investigation against Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala was undoubtedly emboldened by thousands of protesters gathering in front of the presidential palace for months, demanding his resignation. In Chile, anger over corruption forced president Bachelet to fire her entire cabinet early this year. And in Brazil, the Petrobras corruption investigation continues to take down some of the most powerful members of the country's business and political elite.

But 2015 also provided evidence that public outrage will not necessarily lead to radical transformation of the way things are done.

In Guatemala, general elections held less than a week after Pérez Molina's resignation swept Jimmy Morales to the presidency. A former comedian who ran on a platform of anti-corruption boosted by his outsider image, Morales' victory was a direct result of the custom's scandal. But many critics pointed to his links to a group of army veterans associated with the country's years of brutal repression as a sign that his promises of change may prove hollow.


Related: Comedian Leading Guatemalan Presidential Race Accused of Being Front for the Military

President Hernández in Honduras, meanwhile, refused to even consider a U.N.-backed commission like the one in Guatemala. Instead he promised an internal investigation of the medical kickbacks scandal that can never hope to satisfy his critics.

In Mexico, meanwhile, neither the allegations of corruption, the country's security crisis, nor its sluggish economy could prevent President Peña Nieto's governing Party of the Institutional Revolution from remaining he most voted party in midterm congressional elections in June. The main problem, it appeared, was the lack of a credible opposition fueled by the fact that all the main political parties labor under similar allegations of self-serving graft and opportunism.

Related: The Corruption Crackdown in Guatemala Is Making Mexico Jealous

So while 2015 provided a battery of evidence that public tolerance of corruption is not what it once was in Latin America, the jury is still out on whether elites under pressure across the region can still find ways of riding out the political storms that have already broken, and those that are undoubtedly still to come.

"The fight against corruption is a long road and it's just beginning", Daniel Zovatto of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Costa Rica-based NGO, told website Infolatam in September. "It is where the quality of our democracy in the future will be played out."

Related: US Indictment of Powerful Honduran Family for Money Laundering a 'Game Changer'

Follow Jan-Albert Hootsen on Twitter: @Jayhootsen