December 22, 2006
In March 1996 the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption. Ten years later it seems painfully apparent that this instrument has not remedied the high levels of corruption prevailing among its member states. In fact, with the exception of Chile, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Uruguay, countries that have always been perceived as relatively less corrupt, most other countries in Latin America have become more corrupt during the last ten years, as perceived by the organization Transparency International. Some of the countries have simply collapsed, such as Bolivia and Venezuela. Bolivia was placed 36 in 1990 in the ranking of Transparency International while today it's placed at 105. Venezuela was ranked 48 in 1996 while today it's ranked at 138. Both in relative terms and in absolute measurements these countries are in a free fall in all aspects related to honesty in government and in business. Declines are also apparent in Mexico, Brazil and, less so, in Colombia. It seems clear that the convention has not produced an improvement in the manner Latin American countries have managed the problem of corruption.
Why is this so? Basically because it cannot be enforced. Although the convention is a valuable compendium of all the potential manifestations of corruption in member states it is simply unusable to enforce honest and transparent practices in those member states. The reason is that corrupt practices in Latin America are almost always initiated within government structures, in the bureaucracy of those countries. They exist because government institutions are weak, controls are lax or inexistent and political leadership is insincere about wanting to curtail corrupt practices or incapable of keeping his followers in line. When this happens, the OAS cannot act unless the state requests it. But, how can a member state ask for action against corruption, if corruption is being practiced by the state itself, if the main political and bureaucratic representatives of the state are involved, through commission or omission, in the practices of corruption?
The Inter-American Convention Against Corruption says in its preamble that the member states are "convinced" that corruption undermines legitimacy, that democracy "requires the combating of every form of corruption," that fighting corruption "strengthens democratic institutions" and that the states are "responsible to hold corrupt persons accountable… and to cooperate with one another for their efforts in this area to be effective." It goes on, article by article, to ask for efforts by the states and for cooperation among states to fight against corruption. It defines corruption in terms which leaves no doubt as to what corruption means: (a), the incorrect, dishonorable and improper fulfillment of public functions, (b), illicit enrichment, (c), lack of biding practices in government contracting, (d), impunity and complicity in the commission of corrupt acts, and, (e) bribery and extortion, transnational bribery. Corruption and illegal flows of money, says the convention very specifically, cannot hide behind bank secrecy rules.
What can the OAS do, then, when a member state violates practically every component of the preamble and every article of the convention? This is the case of the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. However, the corrupt Hugo Chavez government itself will never make the call for action against the Hugo Chavez corrupt government. Few political regimes commit suicide. At the same time, other member states will not ask for action against the corrupt Chavez regime unless this corruption becomes a threat to their own welfare or national interests. In fact, a significant portion of Chavez's corruption, the donation of significant amounts of Venezuelan money to other Latin American countries or leaders in an effort to buy their political loyalties, or the illicit manipulations in the acquisition of foreign bonds, might be perceived as "beneficial" by some of the countries involved. Why should they call for action? The only victims of Hugo Chavez's corruption are the people of Venezuela. Why should anyone care?
And yet, the spirit of the OAS is violated if the peoples of the hemisphere cannot be defended against their domestic enemies. Somehow the OAS has to find the way to act against a government that is causing great damage to the society it governs (or, more properly in the Venezuelan case, it rules). When all political institutions in a country have been co-opted by the executive power and checks and balances disappear, when the officers in charge of controlling the government become mere appendages of the executive power, when no citizen can demand impartial justice, where can citizens go in search of justice and action against the hyper corruption active within the governments which should protect their interests?
The OAS should create an Inter-American Commission for Anti-Corruption, similar to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, so that citizens of the hemisphere can find a place to address their complaints. Corruption is often a collective offense, harming the interests of society as a whole. The misuse and illegal appropriation of the national wealth of any country impoverishes all society, corrupts the mechanisms of justice and end up by promoting national poverty, not only individual poverty. As a Venezuelan citizen I feel aggrieved by the high levels of corruption present in the Hugo Chavez regime, not so much because they threaten my personal well-being but because they threaten the well-being of all Venezuelan society. The OAS is an organization of States and, as such, is proving ineffective to solve the main problems of the peoples of the hemisphere. Let us try to make it into an organization of Nations, so that the well being of the peoples of those nations can be fully included in their processes of decision-making.
To the extent that international organizations cannot address the real problems of the population and restrict themselves to protecting the interests of their member governments or to being clubs of well paid bureaucrats, usually enjoying material and spiritual standards much higher than those prevailing in their own countries, there will be no incentives for them to do something effective on behalf of the peoples.
I will try in the very near future to introduce before the OAS a request for effective action against the rampant corruption going on in Venezuela. The obvious question that I would be asked is: why don't you do it in Venezuela? This question has an obvious answer: Denouncing corruption in Venezuela is a waste of time and carries a personal risk that, if at all possible, I would like to avoid. There are over 13,000 murders taking place every year in Venezuela and 90% or more of these deaths go unpunished and, even, without investigation. Human life is too valuable to become an insignificant statistic.