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The Catholic Church Struggles to Combat Corruption in Latin America

In 2000, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori resigned after weeks of protests over irregularities in the elections held earlier that summer. The final straw was the release of videos of Fujimori’s head of national intelligence, Vladimir Montesinos, bribing opposition politicians and media outlets. These scandals came on top of the human rights abuses carried out by Fujimori’s government in its conflict with the Shining Path guerrilla movement and the erosion of democratic institutions throughout his time in office.

On Wednesday, Peru’s President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski likewise resigned from office, and the Peruvian congress accepted his resignation today. Kuczynski was elected in 2016, narrowly defeating Fujimori’s daughter Keiko by bringing together parties of both the left and right who rejected the Fujimori’s legacy and who wanted to avoid his potential pardon, which Keiko had promised. In 2017, Kuczynski was accused of receiving payments from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht in 2004 and 2005, when he was the Minister of Economy and Finance under President Alejandro Toledo. In December, Kuczynski narrowly avoided impeachment by the congress after a small handful of members of Keiko Fujimori’s party, the Popular Force, including Keiko’s brother Kenji, voted against impeachment.

Only nine days later, Kuczynski surprised the nation by pardoning Fujimori and releasing him from prison, something he had vowed not to do during the election. After the pardon and further revelations that Kuczynski had used an offshore company to avoid taxes in the United States, Kuczynski faced a second impeachment vote on Thursday. But on Tuesday, in a strange twist of fate, videos surfaced of Kuczynski’s attorney, Kenji Fujimori, and a third official attempting to bribe legislators to vote against impeachment in exchange for state contracts for public works projects. Faced with a now certain impeachment, Kuczynski instead resigned.

Kuczynski is not the only Peruvian leader to be caught up in the Odebrecht corruption scandal. Toledo has been charged with receiving bribes from Odebrecht during his time in office, and so far has avoided extradition in the United States. Five cabinet ministers who served under Toledo’s successor Alan Garcia have also been charged with bribery. Kuczynski’s predecessor Ollanta Humala and his wife Nadine Heredia have likewise been arrested for receiving bribes from Odebrecht, as well as for laundering money to fund the former’s 2011 presidential campaign.

The Odebrecht scandal is not limited to Peru. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela have been accused of receiving payments from Odebrecht during their respective presidential campaigns, and the former director of Pemex, the Mexican state-run oil company, has also been accused of accepting bribes from the company.

Michel Temer, the President of Brazil, is also being investigated for ties to Odebrecht, among other corruption charges. Temer came to power after the 2016 impeachment of his predecessor Dilma Rousseff, who was involved in a corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the Brazilian state-run oil company. Temer himself, who served as vice president under Rousseff despite belonging to a different political party, had nearly been impeached for his involvement in that scandal. Rousseff’s predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was convicted in 2017 for corruption involving both Petrobras and Odebrecht, and will serve nearly ten years in prison.

Corruption scandals like those in Peru and Brazil illustrate the pervasiveness of corruption in Latin America and its detrimental impact on democracy. As Alejandro Salas, the Latin America director for anti-corruption organization Transparency International, has noted, however, there is a paradoxical silver lining to the scandals: “The fact that they are being exposed and investigated is a sign that there is now more scrutiny than before.” Government institutions, like the Brazilian judiciary, are exercising independence and seeking to combat corruption. Journalists are becoming more involved in investigating and exposing corruption. And perhaps most importantly, the growing middle class in the region is demanding more accountability and transparency from politicians.

Outrage over massive corruption scandals like those involving Petrobras and Odebrecht is therefore a healthy sign of a strengthening civil society and a growing demand for government accountability. At the same time, however, it threatens to undermine the Latin American public’s trust in democratic institutions. If one corrupt politician is removed only to be replaced by another, as has happened in both Peru and Brazil, then citizens may increasingly lose faith in the democratic system, leading to either apathy or to support for non-democratic solutions to the corruption problem. Also, according to Transparency International, Latin Americans report that corruption is just as common among the police and local government officials as it is with national political figures, contributing to the impression that the corruption problem is both pervasive and intractable.

The Catholic Church in Latin America has for several years been an important force in the struggle against corruption and in support of democratic institutions. At their 2007 conference in Aparecida, Brazil, the Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean spoke out against the scourge of corruption, which “jeopardize[es] the credibility of government institutions and increas[es] the mistrust of the people.” The bishops insist that “democracy and political participation are fruit of the formation that becomes a reality only when citizens are conscious of their fundamental rights and of their corresponding duties” (#77). In his recent trip to Peru, Pope Francis likewise condemned corruption in an address at the Palacio de Gobierno, in the presence of President Kuczynski. Likewise, the Peruvian bishops have issued a statement in the wake of Kuczynski’s resignation, stating that the nation faces “systemic corruption caused by the divorce between ethics and politics” and pledging the bishops’ support for fostering the dignity of human life and democratic institutions.

At the same time, the Catholic Church in Latin America faces corruption scandals of its own that threaten to undermine its role as a voice against corruption. Most prominently, Cardinal Óscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras and one of Pope Francis’s closest advisers, faces accusations of financial mismanagement and receiving payments from the Catholic University of Tegucigalpa. The accusations are shocking because Cardinal Rodriguez has long been an anti-corruption crusader in Honduras and in Latin America more generally. Somewhat alarmingly, Pope Francis has expressed his support for the cardinal even before the investigation into the matter begun by the Vatican is complete. In Brazil, authorities have arrested Bishop Jose Ribeiro of Formosa, four priests, and several lay people on allegations they stole about $600,000 from church funds.

Whether these specific accusations prove true or not, the perception of corruption in the Catholic Church in Latin America make it harder for it to be a voice against corruption in the broader society. The church must do more than issue condemnations of corruption from the ecclesial leadership, as necessary as these are. It must encourage new and already-existing grassroots efforts to combat corruption at the local level and to encourage democratic participation. It must also encourage greater lay participation in the church, which will in turn encourage greater accountability and transparency among church leaders. The church’s message against corruption in Latin America will be strengthened if it comes from both bishops themselves free from the taint of corruption and an empowered Catholic citizenry.

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