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Republican Notes on Corruption in Latin America – 11/11/2021 – Latinoamerica21

It is difficult to conceive of democracy outside of a republican order, understood as a collective construction with a legal and moral foundation of the public sphere. In other words, there is no Republic without the deliberate construction of a political order based on equality before the law, social justice and civic involvement. Yet law, justice, and civic virtue seem to be antinomies in Latin America’s fragile democracies.

Although classical republicanism admits the risks of transitioning from virtue to the interests of the Republic, Latin American democratizations have been decisively affected by structural deformations (formal and informal rules) and cultural patterns of collective behavior that tear the moral cement of the public interest.

Thus, the deficit in civic virtue and the predominance of private interests over the public interest seem to have perverted the foundations of the collective republican order in Latin America. In the first instance, corruption could be defined as an act of transgression of a norm guided by private interests in exchange for a reward. However, this transgression is often a more complex phenomenon that we encounter in both the public and private sectors.

According to expert Malem Seña, acts of political corruption are those that constitute “an active or passive violation of a positional duty or the non-performance of a political function in order to obtain an extra positional benefit, whatever its nature. “.

These normative standards are always conditioned by the historical and sociocultural context. Such relativity of the norm implies that conduct considered corrupt in one society is not considered corrupt in another. In fact, certain transgressions, both in the public and private sectors, can become informal rules that balance and even optimize certain transactions between both sectors, being positively valued by social culture.

Corruption is a multidimensional phenomenon that crosses the entire society, affecting both public servants and citizens, and therefore involves both the State and civil society. A weak state or with limited public management capacity and deficient democracies will hardly make the public interest prevail over the exacerbated selfishness of the market.

The State in Latin America has oscillated between the regulatory excesses of popular nationalist governments and the extreme flexibility of economic liberalism driven by capitalist globalization. At both extremes, the deep autocratic vocation of certain leaders has been visible, as well as a structural effect that I would define as the nationalization or privatization of the public sector. This is the biggest incentive for political corruption to flourish.

Both nationalization and privatization of the public sphere are based on the weakening of the public-private distinction and on the perversion of an ethics of the public sphere. In Latin American countries, the historical cycles of authoritarian episodes have been no exception, and recent democratizations, despite their recurrent electoral processes, have not limited the emergence of leaders with an autocratic vocation.

The transitions of the late 70s and 80s marked the transition from societies with a strong state-centered matrix, typical of bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes, to a neoliberal economic projection, rooted in the Washington Consensus, whose premise was the reduction of the state apparatus and economic liberalization and market monopoly.

Thus, the political oscillations in the region have been between the State and the market. The progressive governments of the “left turn”, with their populist vocation, tried to stop the differentiating and exclusionary effects of the market, arguing that it strengthened powerful economic groups and regional elites. But in most cases, when they tried to strengthen the state apparatus in order to extend the redistributive effects of their public policies to popular sectors, they confused the public interest (of the nation) with their political-electoral interests.

The nationalization of the public sphere thus implies a politicization of social rights and a growing social polarization. No less important was the dismantling of the liberal mechanisms of transparency and government control, responsibility and respect for the civil and political rights of the opposition.

This dynamic of autocratization has been the fertile ground for corruption and a new emerging economic elite, whose capital is explained by loyalty to the populist project and by the ease with which large amounts of public funds can be deposited in private family accounts. In the recent Latin American experience, the progressive attempts to strengthen the State have not led to a revaluation of the public interest and to a new ethic that minimizes private interests outside the law and projects a notion of social justice.

On the other hand, the governments of the neoliberal right promoted the privatization of the State, that is, its preferential capture for private business interests and local and regional economic elites linked to global capital flows. Given the increase in privatizations, the weakening of the State has limited access to public services for large sectors of the population. This privatization of the State subverts the mechanisms of popular representation and mediation bodies where political participation is crystallized, generating a disconnect between the demands of citizens and government policies.

Exclusion accentuates the feeling of abandonment and undermines the civic foundations of popular participation. Faced with this precariousness of everyday life, it is difficult to imagine the rational construction of a collective order and even less the cultivation of civic virtues. Law and the rule of law, as universal norms, lose their meaning, and with it, the most elementary notion of social justice.

Defining the foundations of the Republic, therefore, implies creating conditions for the development of a legal framework that guarantees the regulatory pre-eminence of the law as a stimulus to the notion of a shared project, governed by the principles of freedom, social justice and civic commitment. The Republic must be a project of an inclusive nation, without oppressive or exclusionary mechanisms; no monopolies or revanchism.

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