- - Sunday, April 17, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — Brazil’s president may soon lose her job over charges that she manipulated official accounts. Argentina’s former leader faced public inquiry last week in a money laundering probe. And Peru’s presidential front-runner has been forced to disavow her own father, convicted of embezzling millions of dollars in the 1990s and now sitting in prison.

As technology makes shadowy financial transactions difficult to hide, corruption — which has helped shape Latin America’s political landscape since colonial times — increasingly dominates the political discourse.

In the midst of their worst recession in a century, most Brazilians still identify corruption as the main challenge facing the country — and favor punishing the guilty even if it slows the recovery, polls show.

Their anger over accusations that have embroiled much of the local political class culminated Sunday evening in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff by the lower house of Congress. She is accused of breaking fiscal laws in her handling of the budget.

“There is a huge groundswell in the Americas, especially with what is happening in Brazil,” said Bruce Zagaris, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in international criminal law. “It’s definitely not a good time [for corrupt politicians]. It’s a risky time because people are fed up and they’re looking.”

Transparency advocates and the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — which this month orchestrated the Panama Papers leaks that unmasked the offshore holdings of numerous world leaders, including Argentine President Mauricio Macri — have helped drive the issue to the center of conversation, Mr. Zagaris said.

Among the public, such sensational revelations foster the impression that graft is at an all-time high — even though there is no practical way of measuring it, said Marta da Silva Arretche, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.

“We don’t know if there is more or less [corruption]; we do know that people today are much more informed than before,” Ms. Arretche said. “And I have no doubt that the public thinks it’s unacceptable.”

In comparative rankings such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, many Latin American countries continue to perform poorly: Out of a possible 100 points indicating a “very clean” government, Brazil scored 38 in the 2015 survey, Peru logged 36 and Argentina rated a 32. Denmark led, with 91, and the United States registered a 76.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, and Miguel Carter, director of the Demos think tank in Paraguay, argue in an analysis that there are “healthy roots” to the mounting popular anger over corruption scandals that have erupted from Mexico to Chile in recent years. The short-term spike in such outrages, they say, reflects a greater transparency in uncovering corruption and a plunging tolerance to the old graft-ridden ways.

“Amid the doom and gloom, we should acknowledge a large silver lining,” they wrote. “The mere fact that we are talking about these scandals is because — at least in some important ways — democracy and the rule of law are finally taking root in the continent.”

The public outcry against “business as usual” is clearly prompting judges and prosecutors to up the ante.

A challenge to the legality of Mr. Macri’s reported offshore holdings was making its way through local courts just days after they were revealed. And the Argentine president’s troubles pale in comparison with those of his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez, who four months after leaving office has been named as a witness or suspect in no fewer than three corruption cases.

Called to testify for the first time Wednesday, Ms. Fernandez refused to answer a judge’s questions and instead cast the investigations as a political attack on the “K” bloc founded by her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.

“They can subpoena me 20 times, they can jail me, but they cannot make me shut up,” the former president told a crowd of backers at the courthouse. “If they could prohibit the letter ‘K’ from the alphabet, they would.”

Out of office, Ms. Fernandez no longer keeps her tight rein on the judiciary, and an adventurous judge may decide to place the former head of state in investigative custody at some point, said Mariano de Vedia, a political analyst for the La Nacion daily. But with Argentina’s painfully slow judiciary, it is unlikely she will ever be convicted, he added.

Mr. Macri’s and Ms. Fernandez’s cases have reverberated widely, but Mr. de Vedia noted that Argentina’s culture of graft survived even the dramatic aftermath of the country’s 2001 economic collapse — when protesters demanded the ouster of the entire political class.

“In truth, all the practices from before continued — or worse,” he said.

Some, including President Obama on his recent trip here, have argued that the corruption and the heat that top officials are feeling is in part a sign of political maturity and the strength of Latin America’s legal systems.

Whatever the outcome of the probe, Mr. Obama said, Brazil’s democracy “is sufficiently mature [and] institutions and laws are strong enough for this to get resolved. We need a strong Brazil.”

The past’s acceptance of the status quo should not be mistaken for indifference, said Jose Alberto Retamozo Linares, a sociologist at National University of San Marcos in Lima.

Peruvians backing Keiko Fujimori — the favorite in the country’s June 5 presidential runoff — are not excusing or justifying the rampant corruption that marked the 1990-2000 rule of her father, Alberto Fujimori, Mr. Retamozo said. In that case, making sure that history does not repeat itself will largely depend on effective opposition oversight, he added.

In an era of whisteblowers and huge data dumps, cautious optimism could be in order for Latin America’s centuries-old corruption problem, Mr. Zagaris said.

“What used to be financial privacy is no more,” he said. “It’s not as easy as it used to be — hiding the bribes.”

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