Will Today’s Corruption Scandals Fuel Tomorrow’s Demagogues?
President Donald Trump’s aborted trip to Latin America this week will make him the first U.S. president to skip the triennial Summit of the Americas. Instead, Vice President Mike Pence will join heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere as they try to finalize a declaration on “democratic governance against corruption,” a timely focus in light of Latin America’s recent wave of graft scandals. In selecting the theme, the host government of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski showed admirable conviction—if little prescience. Kuczynski himself will be absent, having resigned less than a month before the summit amid a corruption scandal of his own.
Trump too will now be missing in person—although perhaps not in spirit. Latin America is grappling with its own antiestablishment fever, fueled by revelations of politicians on the take. Kuczynski is the latest in a growing list of Latin American political and business leaders felled by corruption allegations, many of them similarly ensnared by connections to the sprawling investigation of the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. In a plea deal with the U.S. Department of Justice, Odebrecht confessed to paying $788 million worth of bribes to government officials in ten countries in Latin America and two in Africa. In most cases, it remains unknown who was on the receiving end of those payments, which means that additional heads are likely to roll. Nonetheless, the scope of recent prosecutions is already unprecedented, leading many observers to justifiably herald a new era of accountability for abuse of power in Latin America.
As presidents and prime ministers gather alongside business and civil society leaders in Lima, however, there is palpable apprehension about what comes next for the region’s discredited democracies. Powerful figures who have come under suspicion are striking back. And with two out of three Latin Americans living in countries set to elect a new president this year, surveys show they are deeply dissatisfied with political parties and democracy itself. Conditions appear ripe for antiestablishment candidates promising to shake up the political system, checks and balances be damned. In regional heavyweights Brazil and Mexico, polls appear to bear out this concern. In short, Latin American voters seem eager to vent their anger against a “rigged” system—and an unpredictable U.S. president could still find ways to complicate matters.