Corruption in Latin America: An Anti-Capitalist Critique

Brasília- DF 16-06-2016 Presidente interino, Michel Temer, durante pronunciamento a imprensa. Foto Lula Marques/Agência PT


If you’ve ever read news about Latin America, you’ll know that one aspect of society there is almost always alluded to: corruption.

For decades, if not centuries, Global North-dominated mainstream media have perpetuated the idea that corruption in Latin America is intrinsic to its people. Most politicians in the region, according to their narrative, are dictators, or people aspiring to become dictators, who fight to maintain their grip on power at all costs.

Corporate Latin American news outlets also regurgitate this argument.

While this view reflects some aspects of reality, it completely fails to explain the root cause of corruption — not only in the region, but all over the world.

Corruption isn’t the product of evil thoughts conceived of by equally evil individuals, as this incomplete explanation puts forth. It’s the product of an inherently-corrupt capitalist economic system that leads individuals to act in evil ways.

Furthermore, corruption isn’t separate from and external to the foundations of the current world order. It’s part and parcel of it. That’s because profit, the guiding principle of the current capitalist system, is based on the exploitation of individuals.

For most, one’s survival is entirely dependent on their ability to earn profit for a boss who will in turn pay them less money than they deserve. If that doesn’t work out, they’re forced to act outside of the law and commit acts of corruption in order to make money for their survival.

For the few individuals who are able to become bosses, the endless pursuit of profit, mandatory for those who want to remain wealthy, consumes their minds like a virus. Intoxicated by the powers and privileges that accompany profit, they do whatever it takes to maintain their material status, even if that means breaking the law.

Consider the following example.

If there’s one name that’s synonymous with corruption in Latin America, it’s Odebrecht.

Named after its wealthy founder Norberto Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction and engineering company is currently at the center of the region’s largest graft probe.

Odebrecht is accused of bribing politicians across Latin America in order to win work permits in their respective countries. Its company leaders have been charged with paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the campaigns of presidents, presidential candidates and ministers in at least 12 countries.

Brazilian President Michel Temer, for example, has been accused of accepting over $40 million worth of bribes from Odebrecht.

Hundreds of low-level government workers from across the region have also been implicated in the scandal for accepting bribes in exchange for silence on the matter.

The talking heads in mainstream media will have us believe that if those implicated in the scheme are simply removed, the problem will be fixed. They relegate the problem of Odebrecht’s corruption to an individual level, instead of analyzing it from a broader, systemic level.

The reality is, however, that the corruption scheme would have continued unhinged if it was carried out by people different from those currently implicated.

By the time Emilio, Norberto’s son, took the reins of the family-run company in 1991, it faced rising financial problems, such as rising contract rejections and increased competition. In order to maintain Odebrecht’s wealth and status, Emilio and his son Marcelo began “nudging” politicians across the region in order to secure the profits needed to feed their construction and engineering empire.

This meant that lower-level officials within the company were forced to comply with the bribery scheme in order to keep their jobs. It also meant that politicians and aspiring politicians alike were able to receive millions of dollars for their campaigns, allowing them to more easily secure their positions of power.

The Odebrecht scandal began not because these specific individuals woke up one day and randomly decided to break the law out of pure maliciousness. It began because elites saw their profits and power at risk and decided to break the law in order to maintain their material self interests.

Thus, their material self interests gave birth to their corrupt ideas, not the other way around. This is called a materialist understanding of reality.

This scenario, not exclusive to Odebrecht nor Brazil, plays out in most Latin American countries where capitalism is the dominant economic system.

In those countries, if you’re a worker who is not able to earn profit for your employer, you won’t last long. Meanwhile, wealthy business people and right-wing politicians become intoxicated by the drive for profit and power, moving them to endlessly accumulate more, regardless of the consequences.

This is an axiom of capitalism. And as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system in Latin America, schemes like the one carried out by Odebrecht will continue to play out.

Ultimately, corruption is an unavoidable inevitability of capitalism.

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