Latin America's Anti-Corruption Wave Is A Good Thing. Except When It Isn't.

May 17, 2016

Last week Brazil’s Senate voted overwhelmingly to impeach and suspend the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff. She now faces a long trial on charges of illegally using state bank funds to cover up big budget deficits.

Rousseff is caught up in an angry public revolt against Brazil's epic corruption, including a $3 billion scandal at the state oil firm Petrobras. But she calls her impeachment a hypocritical "coup" – pointing to the fact that more than half the members of the Brazilian congressional committee that recommended her ouster face corruption charges too.

That doesn't mean Rousseff is innocent. But it does raise this conundrum:

Anti-corruption movements are rising across Latin America. And that’s a good thing.

Except when it isn’t.

"There is the worry that some really innocent people might wind up in jail," says Keith Rosenn, a University of Miami School of Law professor and an expert on Latin America.

“This is unchartered waters at the moment. And we’re not sure yet how many people are in prison now only for political reasons.”

RELATED: As Rousseff Faces Impeachment In Brazil, The U.S. Follows A New Logic In Latin America

In many Latin American countries, the forces and systems in charge of the anti-corruption campaigns are themselves fairly corrupt.

Consider Panama – and the case of Frank De Lima, the former Minister of Economy and Finance.

“I was thrown into jail for a mere administrative issue," De Lima told me by phone from his home in Panama City. "The first word that comes to mind is frustration. Impotence as well.”

You can't trample people's human rights with the excuse that you're chasing corruption. -Frank De Lima

De Lima served under Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s President from 2009 to 2014. Admittedly, investigators say Martinelli’s government was seriously corrupt. Its alleged embezzlement and kickback schemes may have cost Panama more than $100 million. Martinelli is on the run from those charges in Miami – in a luxury condo in Brickell.

So Martinelli’s successor, President Juan Carlos Varela, has declared an anti-corruption crusade. And last year, Panamanian prosecutors linked De Lima to the embezzlement of millions of dollars from a food subsidy program for poor schools.

But the only apparent connection was that De Lima, as Finance Minister, had simply allocated money that was already legally budgeted for the program.

"I don't know why I was caught up in this investigation," said De Lima. "Nowhere in the file do they accuse me or anyone in my ministry of receiving any type of benefit."

Still, last May an anti-corruption prosecutor put De Lima in jail – with no real formal charge – for 9 ½ months.

Frank De Lima at home in Panama.
Credit Courtesy Frank De Lima

“She says to me," De Lima recalled, "‘You were the minister, you had to give an example, and now I’m going to make an example of you.’”

While De Lima was in jail, a government comptroller report effectively absolved him, but he wasn’t released on bail until three months later.

WLRN made several requests to the prosecutor for a response, but we did not hear back from her. De Lima is still awaiting a trial date – which he says at this point seems a breach of due process.

“You can’t trample people’s human rights," he argued, "with the excuse that you’re chasing corruption.”

It’s a complaint being heard around Latin America – especially in countries like Venezuela, where judicial systems are under the thumb of ruling parties, and corruption cases are often veiled political persecution.

SILVER LINING

But Rosenn of the University of Miami says there is one potential silver lining to these anti-corruption controversies.

“For the first time in many of these Latin American countries," he says, "people who are well connected politically wind up being victims of the judicial system. As long as the political class was largely immune from the criminal justice system, efforts to reform it frequently went nowhere.”

He and other experts believe one of the most urgent things to reform is what happened to Frank De Lima in Panama: lengthy pre-trial detention. It forces people to sit in jail, often for years and often without even being formally charged.

Most Latin American prisons are grossly overcrowded due in large part to excessive pre-trial detentions.
Credit Open Society Foundations Justice Initiative

In Latin America, almost half the prison population has yet to see a trial. (In Panama, it's two-thirds.)

“Traditionally in many Latin America countries a significant number of crimes do not allow for pre-trial release," says Martin Schönteich, a senior legal officer at the Justice Initiative of the Open Society Foundations in Washington D.C.

"And I think that undermines the rule of law and people’s respect in the criminal justice system.”

Seeing first hand what powerless people in Latin America have faced for so long has certainly affected the outlook of powerful figures like Frank De Lima.

“Now that I personally lived this experience," said De Lima, "I will become an advocate of the legal reforms that have to be done so no one has to go through this here.”

And with that kind of change, the anti-corruption crusades stand to become more credible.