Corruption as a threat to liberty

Opinion22.08.2018Mercedes De Freitas

It seems that the majority of Latin America’s presidents and ex-presidents had “irregular” dealings with the Brazilian companies involved in Operation Car Wash, chief among them Odebrecht, where the scale of the corruption was on a par with the scale of its construction projects. This grand corruption that makes the headlines day after day, leaving the public feeling angry and powerless, has come to overshadow the petty corruption practised by public officials who extort money from people in exchange for speeding up bureaucratic 

Transparency International defines grand corruption as the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society, often going unpunished. This definition highlights how those in power take decisions with the complicity or collusion of a sufficiently large proportion of key roles in the judiciary and comptroller’s office to ensure that the beneficiaries go unpunished in spite of the harm caused to society.

Hospitals that were promised and paid for but never built, the purchase of expired vaccines by the public healthcare system and the acquisition of medical equipment that can’t be used because the technology is incompatible. While for some people, cases like this mean death and ill health, they allow others to live a life of luxury. 

Grand corruption is not only a reflection of the failings of democracy, as Guillermo O’Donnell claims in his studies of the young democracies of the 20th century. Neither is it a disease that reflects the quality of a democracy, as argued by Israel Covarrubias González.   In fact, it poses a threat to the Republic itself, by which I mean the basic structure that society has developed to limit power: the separation of powers and responsibilities (checks and balances) and the rule of law which means that everyone is equal before the law and the law always comes above private interests. 


In the 21st century, corruption has brought down presidents in countries such as Guatemala, but without causing them to change the country’s corrupt power structures. We have also seen Brazil’s leaders, from Lula to Dilma and even Temer, accused of promoting and being involved in the region’s largest ever corruption scandal, and a powerful man like Mauricio Odebrecht being sentenced to 19 years in prison. Nevertheless, most corruption cases are not investigated. If they are investigated they never make it to the courts and even if they do make it to the courts they do not result in convictions. Impunity is the scourge of justice and liberty. 

How can a citizen go to court with any confidence that they will receive justice if they know that judges can be bribed? How hard must it be for an entrepreneur to start or develop a new initiative if they believe or know that they will have to bribe several public officials in order to complete the formal requirements? How can we expect anyone to take part in a tender if another company has already paid a bribe to make sure they are awarded the contract? How are we supposed to report offences and injustices if we know that the police are not independent? Why should we participate in elections when one of the parties can get away with using public money to fund its campaign and when the rules are not applied equally to all parties but are instead changed to suit the interests of one of them? How can we engage as citizens if access to information about public affairs is confined to those in power? The legal certainty that we need to act as responsible citizens is jeopardized by the risks of confronting public authorities undermined by corruption. How free can we be with so much fear and so many threats?

Grand corruption will do whatever it can to get rid of the things that constrain it. At times, it operates slowly and insidiously, buying cooperation, favours, legal verdicts and licences. At other times, it resorts to violence in order to remove any obstacles standing in the way of its wrongdoing. Corruption weakens a country’s institutions, creating parallel structures that in some countries have, over time, transformed from networks of complicity and corrupt bureaucracies into dangerous transnational organised crime groups.

In recent years, some cases have blurred the line between corruption and organised crime. In Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, there have been multiple cases of drug enforcement officers being charged with and convicted of drug trafficking offences. Not to mention the murder of mayors, police officers, journalists and human rights campaigners who dared to expose the corrupt or the corrupters. 

The corrupt have no ideological hang-ups – they will quite happily support both left-wing and right-wing leaders. Regardless of who is in power, they know when to move and when to stay put, reinventing themselves and switching their allegiances – doing whatever it takes to survive the ups and downs of politics. The leaders of grand corruption are not so much autocrats as kleptocrats – to them, power is just a means of controlling resources.

What corrupt people are very good at is finding efficient and innovative ways of using the points where the public and the private come into contact to their own advantage, i.e. bypassing the laws that apply to the rest of us for their own personal gain. In order to get away with it, they have to bribe a lot of people – the number of accomplices varies depending on how much money is involved. In the case of a $100 bribe, the victim and the corrupt official may be the only people who know about it. But when millions of dollars are involved, they need a transnational network including everyone from the initial contacts or connections right up to financial and legal experts who launder the money and pay it into legitimate bank accounts so that it is available for them to use and enjoy.

Our societies are often willing to let things go and accept conflicts of interest without kicking up a fuss. But these conflicts are fatal to individual responsibility and are at the root of the silence regarding the lack of accountability in the public sector. 

We need to jog our leaders’ memories and remind them that they are there to represent collective interests and administer the assets and resources of the nation’s citizens accordingly. Before we can enjoy liberty as citizens, it will be necessary to build a network of autonomous and independent government agencies that work together to control the government’s actions and that have effective powers to prevent and punish malfeasance by public officials. If we did that, we could at least begin to be free.