Alejandro Salas: Following the Arab Spring, a Latin American Winter?

Looking back just a year, it would have been hard to imagine the events that were to unfold in the Middle East. Who could have predicted the “Arab Spring” where Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians and others stood up and demanded change?

My guess is most analysts would have rejected talk of revolution. These people had been ruled for so long by a small group of corrupt individuals who abused their power to get rich at the expense of the masses. The public was resigned to struggling on. Why would things change? Now we know they can.

This is why it is painful when one senses a mood of resignation in Latin America. I worry that people in many parts of the region resign themselves to accepting despicable practices in government, politics or business as the norm. Almost 90 per cent of Latin Americans believe that corruption levels in their country have gone up or remained the same in the past three years, according to Transparency International’s 2010 Global Corruption Barometer.

It is time for Latin Americans to shake off the bleak mood, the feeling of fatality, and, in many cases, to stop participating in corrupt transactions, no matter how petty they are.

The sense that corruption is unavoidable also comes across in the daily language. In Mexico, you hear the expression “el que no tranza no avanza”, roughly translating to “if you don’t cheat you don’t get ahead”. Meanwhile, questions about Peruvian politics are often met with the proverb “roba pero hace”, suggesting a politician can be corrupt and steal from the public as long as he or she appears to be efficient in office. No wonder then that in the period before the 2006 elections surveys showed former president Fujimori as a favorite despite having fled Peru amidst a grand corruption scandal.

Politicians are partially to blame for this mood. To win votes, many have pledged to put an end to corruption quickly, only to find themselves unable on unwilling to deliver once in office. Even worse, some have become embroiled in corruption scandals themselves.

But politicians are not the only ones responsible. Citizens also have a role to play. A survey by Transparencia Mexicana reported that more than 200 million acts of corruption occurred at the federal, state and municipal government levels in 2010 alone, costing Mexicans 32 billion pesos (nearly US$2.8 billion). In other words, an average Mexican household spent 14 per cent of its income on bribes to access one of 35 public services. Such behavior is not exclusive to Mexico though, it happens to different degrees throughout the region.

It is time for Latin Americans to shake off the bleak mood, the feeling of fatality, and, in many cases, to stop participating in corrupt transactions, no matter how petty they are. People need to raise their voice to demand more honesty and accountability from their governments, companies and fellow citizens. As the Arab Spring has shown, things can and will change if we refuse to allow a greedy few to live at the expense of many.

The Brazil of president Rousseff might be an example of transformation promoted from the government. Several ministers have resigned or been sacked amidst corruption scandals. Although it is still too early to celebrate or to judge these actions, Brazil is sending a powerful signal. If this reformist push is successful, Latin American mind-sets might be positively influenced and people can increasingly believe they have the power to prevent the region from sinking into a “Latin American Winter.”

Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter  @ASalasTI The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International.

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