Class and corruption in Latin America

UBC’s Max Cameron (who wrote a great book on NAFTA back in the day) looks at endemic corruption in Latin America; in this case, a Peruvian congresswoman who put her maid on congressional payroll as a “political advisor”. (As an aside, those back east might be interested to learn about a major corruption trial underway in BC right now involving senior aides in the BC government, and possibly, some ministers, around the privatization of BC rail.)

Maid service

Corruption in Latin America is highlighted by the case of a politician who employed her maid as a ‘political adviser’.

Maxwell A Cameron

Why is corruption endemic in parts of Latin America? A recent case from Peru suggests that a mixture of inequality and uneven enforcement of the law for those in power are at the heart of the problem.

In late April, the television program Cuarto Poder (Fourth Power) revealed that Elsa Canchay, Peruvian member of congress from the province of Junín, had placed her maid on the congressional payroll as a “political adviser”.

Out!” thundered Peru’s most important daily newspaper, El Comercio, in editorial last April. “Does this person have the moral authority to continue producing laws?”

The congressional ethics commission has called for a 120-day suspension without pay, and passed the file to the commission for constitutional accusations. The latter has the power to expel lawmakers. This should also be the first step towards a criminal investigation. But will it be?

The salary of a congressional advisor is roughly $1,500 per month – about 10 times the miserable allowances generally given to maids in Peru. The press presumes (though this is rarely stated explicitly except by bloggers) that Canchay was using her maid to line her own pockets. Jacqueline Simón Vicente, the maid in question, would have been placed on the payroll in exchange for agreeing to turn over most of her salary to the member of congress, though none of this is yet publicly confirmed. Such practices have, nevertheless, been revealed repeatedly in the past, and in one exceptional case a member of congress was expelled as a result.

Public indignation was stirred when Canchay not only lied about her maid – claiming she was a notary-in-training when photos show her wearing a maid’s uniform – but also suggested the accusations against her were motivated by racism.

If racism is the issue, it is only because discrimination is at the root of inequality in Peru. Gross inequality makes it possible for employers to engage in abusive practices such as stealing from employees. Maids are subject to extremely abusive and discriminatory working and living conditions in Peru (recently dramatised by their exclusion, like dogs, from beaches near Lima).

It would be easy to minimise the case against Elsa Canchay as merely another episode of petty malfeasance. As the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) notes, however, “corruption in public office extends uninhibited when citizens either resign themselves to living with it or contribute to spreading it further”.

Survey research repeatedly shows that Peruvians, and Latin Americans generally, have little confidence in their legislative institutions, and even less confidence in their judicial institutions. Less than one in three Peruvians has confidence in congress, and about one in five has confidence in the courts. Corruption in congress implicates the legislature and the judiciary, potentially compounding distrust in both.

Given the stakes, why are the congress and the judiciary unable to respond in ways that would restore public trust? Why are they unable to uphold the rule of law, even with respect to their own members? The answer is that the members of Peru’s deliberative institutions are, in practice, above the law. Members of congress enjoy parliamentary immunity. Nobody would deny that members of congress should be able to pass legislation without fear of legal repercussions, but in practice parliamentary immunity has become a form of impunity. As a result, the toughest legal response to the Canchay case is likely to come from the congress, not the courts. It would take the form of an expulsion and ban on holding public office for 10 years.

When members of the congress take it upon themselves to act as judges, as they are now doing in the case of Canchay, they are engaged in what is called political justice. Members of congresses are bad judges because they often lack the requisite legal training, they are partisan, and the application or interpretation of laws in particular cases is not their area of competence. In recent memory, the Peruvian congress expelled a member only to be forced to readmit that person after she was cleared of all charges by the courts. And yet the courts, overwhelmed by a backlog of cases and lacking the energy to assert their prerogatives, are unlikely to push for justice.

Corruption, if unchecked, metastasises and grows more virulent. Canchay should be expelled from congress – not as a punishment but as a prelude to a trial. A criminal sentence, rather than a political ban on holding public office, would best stop the career of a politician who has done more harm than good. Unless congress can show that the rule of law applies to its own members, Peruvians are right to place little confidence in their political institutions.

One comment

  • An effective tool to combat corruption is to create a who is who index of the corrupt in each country and town. A lot of information is available in the Internet, but its fragmented and difficult to use. An index of the corrupt with a post for each individual name photo curriculum crimes etc is the way to go to make information easy to use for everybody.

    Here goes an example from Uruguay

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