Political corruption in Latin America and Recycling

Political corruption is a serious problem limiting development in emerging economies. Many scholars have identified corruption as the new enemy of democratization, blaming it for limiting political and socio-economic development of most developing nations (Bardhan P.,1997; Seligson M., 2002, Canache D. and Allison M., 2005). Although no one can really measure “corruption” due to its discrete nature and the different discourses defining it, citizen’s perception of corruption can give us an idea of its direction. Manny current approaches to the study of corruption take into consideration the importance of corruption perception indexes (Johnston 2005, Acemoglu D. and Robinson J. 2001, Canache D. and Allison M., 2005), and the availability of democratic channels such as regular popular elections, freedom of the press, civic society organizations, private property rights and individual rights (O’Donell G, 1994). Corruption index reports such as Transparency International, LatinoBarometro, Freedom House) show extensive public awareness of mass corruption in developing countries (TI, 2011; LB 2009; FH 2010). Awareness of corruption does not seem to trigger any major demands to fight corruption seriously. The question leading this literature review is why citizens, after accurately perceiving corruption and perceiving it as wrong, fail to adjust their opinions of, or simply ignore, the leaders or democratic institutions that govern them?

The question of public tolerance of political corruption has assessed from different approaches. Some scholars, for instance, focus on the direct link between citizens and organization/leaders based on clientelism, nepotism, cronyism, and other informal ways of wealth redistribution (Kurer, O. 1993, Rose –Ackerman 1999 p. 11). Other works approach the problem of tolerance from cultural, religion and even legal system perspectives (.C. C. E. Chang and Chu Y 2006; Johnston M. 1983). These works, nonetheless, show no clear differentiation between tolerance and acceptance. For the purpose of this literature review, however, public tolerance of corruption will solely refer to the civil society’s judgment of endurance of corruption as illegitimate. The argument explored in this literature is that the origins of public tolerance of corruption in Latin American can be linked to regime change oscillations in their recent political history. These fluctuations in their political transition processes had important effects on how citizens defined their relationship with democratic institutions, and ultimately with the institutional channels and paths that allow them to hold their leaders/public officials accountable for their actions. Finally, consideration is given to other potential socio-economic factors that might help perpetuate the status quo of public tolerance of corruption.

There exists a great scholarly consensus about the factors leading to the building of strong democratic accountability institutions. Many scholars agree that the active participation of civic groups, political rights, collective interest and strong associations to democratic institutions are essential factors to triggering accountability demands (Johnston M., 2005; O’Donnell 1994 & 1999; Canache D., and Allison 2005; Acemoglu D. and Robinson J. 2001, Mueller, 1990; Rose-Acherman 1999). Not Coincidentally, these social-historical factors are the ones that have been the most affected in Latin American after political transitions ( Malloy J. and Seligson 1987; O’Donnell G 1978; Conaghan and Espinal )., Catherine Conahan and Rosario Espinal, for instance, found that in very short periods,1960 -1968, the Dominican Republic experienced a great deal of fluctuations in regime changes from authoritarian to democratic, democratic to authoritarian and authoritarian to semi-democratic. After these unstable regime transitions, the fragmentations and disorganization of civil society and its institutions, and a generalized perception of an over influential and disproportional participation of conservative elites (military and the affluent) was evident (Espinal E. and Conehan C., 1990). Additionally, serious support for democracy from the bourgeoisie emerged only when they have secured political and economical control (Acemoglu D. and Robinson J. 2001, O’Donnelle 1978). These same political transitional symptoms are also found in Latin American recent political history (ibid.)

Latin American political transitions were also characterized by the constant success of the elites at frustrating civil society attempts to establsih democracy (Herman E. and Broadhead F 1984). In addition, besides high levels of exclusion of the lower classes, there was also the recycling of corrupt, and many times repressive, institutions (Espinal E., 1986). Consequently, the new political regime created new laws and institutions that seemed to guarantee participation but at the same time “Old powers” kept their ability/power to redistribute wealth, access to resources and play decisive roles in policy decision-making. The institutions needed in modern societies to put a check on corruption were not created to establish “good governance” but to secure the elites in power (Johnston, 2005-21-22). Consequentially, after developing a feeling of defeat, civil society begins a process of disassociation from government its institutions. The sense of legitimacy was disrupted.

 The modern democratization process starts from these frustrated experiences with democracy. Elections no longer threaten the elites’ hold on political and economical power (Stephens E. H., 1990). Democracy becomes a viable and stable system for the elites once they have found means to strengthen their own political power (ibid). Modern democratization process is also accompanied by international pressure from organizations and other countries. However, the process of reattachment of civil society to democratic institutions and their belief in the legitimacy of the system does not seem to emerge, even in a new and more informed civil society. Distinct from Latin America, political crisis and regime change in many European countries resulted in an increase consolidation of public participation and their reliance on institutionalized path/channels to democratic institutions, therefore increasing the sense of public accountability. Johnston, similarly, asserts that in these democracies the relationship between the public and institution is based on a superior sense of “ownership”, rather than citizenship and political party memberships (Johnston, p. 23 2005). Politicians/public officials are constantly held accountable to their shareholders. However, civil society in Latin America is still developing the sense of a direct and institutionalized ownership of public institutions. Once civil society fails to develop a sense of entitlement to accountability, politicians see little incentives to engage in institutionalized and just “fiscal redistribution” of wealth (Acemoglu and Robinson 2002).

The ability to easily get away with political corruption creates institutional incentives to commit immoral and unethical acts, which genesis does not necessarily come from the economic concerns of rational choice, but recent political institutional history. In addition, citizens may believe corruption is embedded in their democratic regime, which allows corrupt politicians to diverge accusations of corruption to the parties or governments. Political parties can be easily fixed and renovated by switching their dishonest public officials to diferent positions –not expelling them. This recycling process allow them to stay in the game. The problem of answerability to the public worsens once this particular generation of politicians, formed with little or none sense of public accountability, is appointed or elected to public office. The sense of “ownership” translates into a more private and personal sense that allows them to use public moneys in any way they deem fit. They considered themselves immune from question or criticism, and the only thing they fear is election not because of prosecution, but because they may lose their source of income (O’Donnell 1994).

The opposition hopes to get to power not necessarily to remedy the problem but to enjoy the disproportional and deinstitutionalized access to power and wealth. The elites, on the other hand, are unresponsive to corruption as long as their access to wealth and power is secured. Guillermo O’Donnell asserts that if corruption levels threaten the economic interests of the elite, a “natural outcome” would be a coup d’état. However, nowadays the elite’s economic interests are well protected by international financial organization (International Monetary Fund, World Bank) that play a decisive role in drafting economic policies in these countries. Under these circumstances, there is no way the Weberian institutional evolution can materialize (Rubistein and von Maravic 2010: 31 23). The limited perceived bonding between citizens and institutionalized access to redistribution can give raise to micro corruption. A free for all type of situation can emerge, in which elections only serve to alternate access to corrupt channels of power and wealth. Civic engagement in public affairs is interpreted as a right to partake in the informal distribution of the governmental pie (wealth). These types of behavior leads to the “random and sporadic corrupt[tion]” that the masses have to endure in order to access public institutions (J. C. Scott 1969:63 as cited by Rubistein and von Maravic 2010: 31).

It also disrupts the institutional role of immediate accountability institutions such as Congress and the Judicial system. The bureaucratic leaders described by Weber (as cited in 2010) have no hope of reaching office through honest means. Additionally, Guillermo O’Donnell asserts that such institutional crises provides “the fertile terrain” for the continuation of this type of almighty presidentialism democracy existing in many developing nations. Most of these democracies enjoy access to information supported by both the international community and local community groups that have helped exposes the effect of corruption on society. The faded, or perhaps lacking, sense of entitlement to accountability is not the only factor stimulating this seemingly perpetuated trends of social behavior. New questions about the perpetuation trends of public tolerance emerge, as corruption becomes a subject of international concern. How can civil society tolerance of political corruption be maintained after extensive exposure to the injustice behind it? How can corruption indexes measurements have a limited effect on public tolerance of corruption? Another factor worth of consideration to understand the social construction of the relation of the masses to public institutions is the informal and formal discourse of civil society. In many developed nations, for instance, the formal communication between institutions and citizens is based on a stakeholders approach (Smith G. E. and C. A. Huntsman, 2009).

Citizens enjoy a well sense of awareness of the role of taxpayers being the ultimate funders of the public institution. This awareness is also well rooted in the public discourse. Consequently, civil society perceives the harm done by corruption unethical, immoral and a direct fraudulent act that affect their finances (Schachter H 1995). The formal and informal discourses found in highly corrupt Latin American countries, nonetheless, are characterized by the bridging of the relationship of civil society and public institutions with political parties. Political parties act as the go-betweens agents. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, the major political party’s song and slogan demand from the people to be server of party in order to serve the common good (Servir al Partido Para Servir al Pueblo). Public officials address civil society mostly through their parties, and refer to taxpayers, citizens as comrades, friends, and other populist terms. There exists little reference to voters as taxpayers, or even stakeholders in public affairs. Notwithstanding from the economic dependency on clientelism, nepotism, cronyism, and other factors of channels to wealth and power, public endurance of generalized corruption can be affected by legitimized source of income.

For example, International remittance from relatives abroad can create a sense of disinterest in what happens to the public wealth. The Multilateral Investment Fund, for instance, conducts an annual survey on the amount, flow and use of remittance money sent to developing countries from abroad. They also found that high percentage of the population some Latin America countries depends on remittances as a direct source of income for basic necessities and moderate use on education. In the case of the Dominican Republic, 38 % of the population is believed to receive some sort of direct remittances (MIF Remittance to LA 2010). To put it in a major context, international remittance was larger than the official development assistance and foreign direct investment combined in the Dominican Republic (ibid.). The report also shows that most of the recipients of remittances have higher level of education than the average citizens in their respective countries. Moreover, the average per capita remittances is $302 when the Dominican public sector minimum wage is set at 2800 Dominican pesos, or 73$ (ibid.).\nThere exist important scholarly works on international economic factors shaping peoples’ relation to the state and how Foreign Aid and effects this relation (Knack, S., 2004; Tomohisa H., 2001; Jakob Svensson (1999).

However, remittances are not included as a foreign aid/income. The relation of citizens’ perception of “ownership” of government resources and their dependency on this international income should be the purpose of more intense quantitative research. Other factors worth of consideration and directly link to remittance are the percentage of citizens with a direct relative abroad and the perceived, if any, time of emigration. Manuel Orozco conducted a survey in the Dominican Republic in 2008 that shows 69% of the population had a direct relative abroad; 28% hopes to migrate within one year, with the percentage increasing as the waiting time increases (Orozco M., 2008). Highly expectation of migration can affect what Johnston calls “the idea of lasting interest in society”, which he finds essential for the building and maintaining of accountability institutions (Jhonston M., 2005 p. 22-23).

Highly expectation of migration can translate into indifference, which transforms into passive, if not, inactive participation in public institutions/affairs. In addition, the migration process itself can further deter people from demanding and participating in protests/marches. Participating in protests that tend to get violent increases the risks of having a criminal record, in which case can frustrate dreams of migrating.

The socio-political factors that help define the relationship between civil society and public institutions allow us to understand public tolerance of corruption from a different approach. Understanding the social construction of the “sense of ownership” of public institutions can lead us to the understanding of civil society’s sense of entitlement accountability. We have seen, for instance, how reviving civil society’s sense of entitlement to the public wealth have driven leaders in and out of power. Most of the South American leftist regimes depend on this “sense” of ownership/entitlement to win election and to stay in power. However, few of these countries show serious interest in institutionalizing the citizen-government relationship, especially if it threatens their stay in government. Further research, nonetheless, should help us understand how remittance, language and expectation of leaving the country contribute to the creation of a passive/inactive civil society. Researchers of both corruption and democratic theory should consider these approaches.