The hemispheric summit and the 'crusade' against business corruption

15 April 2018

Peru this weekend played host to the eighth hemispheric summit, a gathering of government leaders from across the region. According to its official title, the summit was supposed to focus on improving governance and reducing corruption.

With many of the regions leaders accused of corruption (and with all the negative implications this has for governance) it was arguable that there would be no shortage of experience to inform the debate in these areas. But the extent to which the heads of government could be relied upon to promote clean government was very much open to question; as one commentator put it, it was as if they were looking at themselves in the mirror.

In Peru’s case, the man who had invited the leaders to Lima, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, had himself resigned the country’s presidency three weeks earlier, accused of corruption. The country’s other political leaders appeared at least as immersed in corruption as he was, if not more.

A string of former presidents going back more than 30 years are all either accused or in some cases have been jailed for corruption: Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), jailed for corruption and gross human rights violations; Alejandro Toledo (2001-06), threatened with extradition from the United States on account of corruption; Alan Garcia (1985-90 and 2006-11) accused of corruption in both governments; Ollanta Humala (2011-16) currently in jail pending investigations into corruption; and now Kuczynski (2016-18) impeached for corruption.

The summit ratified a series of proposals put to it by foreign ministers who met in Lima on 12 April. Whether these will add up to anything more than pious words remains to be seen. The onus will be on the region’s leaders (Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra among them) to prove otherwise.

Initiating a get-together in Lima of Latin American business leaders the day before the summit, Vizcarra pressed on his listeners the importance of ending bribery by business leaders. “I invite the business sector to back this effort [to combat corruption], to back this crusade, and accept the challenge of establishing the mechanism that helps [us] prevent practices associated with bribery and promotes transparency”. 

The practices used by Odebrecht and other Brazilian construction firms to secure contracts across Latin America and parts of Africa have laid bare the mechanisms that have long been used by large business groups to sway government decisions in their direction. In some instances, such forms of influence are legal or semi-legal, but now we can see clearly that illegal practices were involved in Peru and many other countries. Where legality and illegality merge is often a grey area. Peru, at least, provides striking examples for further study; but the problem lies not in identifying the problem but in changing business behaviour.

The relevance of the summit meeting was brought into question by US President Donald Trump’s decision to back out. He is the first US president to have done so since the first such summit in 1994. Also absent was Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Although disinvited by Kuczynski, he had previously said he would turn up irrespective. His said he considered the summit “a waste of time”. Another absentee was Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno who arrived in Lima only to return to deal with political problems at home.

Trump’s absence has been interpreted as his administration giving too little importance to Latin America foreign policy. Trump himself is no icon of good governance or business rectitude. His policies on trade and immigration have irritated countries from across the region. Although many heads of government were critical of Venezuela at the summit, US threats to intervene against Maduro have caused them alarm.

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