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  • The Politics of Corruption in Latin America
  • Kurt Weyland (bio)

There is a widespread impression that corruption has been on the rise in Latin America over the past 20 years. Certainly, bribery is not new to the region, but massive graft seems to have proliferated, as suggested by scandals in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and other countries. Assuming that the perception of increased corruption reflects a real change, and is not due merely to better reporting and closer scrutiny by a more vigilant public, what are the main reasons behind this increase? Current explanations tend to stress heightened opportunities for extracting bribes more than incentives for doing so. As regards the former, many scholars have pointed to growing state interventionism, which gives bureaucrats and politicians broad discretion over temptingly vast resources. 1 Other scholars, by contrast, have pointed to the recent wave of neoliberal reforms, during which bureaucrats and politicians disposed of huge portions of public property, often with limited transparency. 2 While these factors were at work in some cases, they do not provide a sufficient explanation for the recent rise of corruption.

As regards increased incentives for corruption, a prime suspect is the wave of democratization that has swept across Latin America over the last 25 years. By dispersing power and requiring the consent of several institutions in decision making, the return of democracy has extended the range of actors who can demand bribes. But democratization can hardly account for the rise of corruption in authoritarian Mexico or in [End Page 108] a long-established democracy like Venezuela. Moreover, in principle, democratization should enhance the transparency of policy making and the accountability of politicians and bureaucrats, thereby limiting the spread of corruption.

My own explanation therefore emphasizes an additional factor—the rise of politicians who appeal to “the masses” via television. While ever more politicians use such appeals as one of their campaign tactics, mobilization of the previously unorganized has provided crucial bases of support for current or recent “neopopulist” leaders such as Argentina’s Carlos Menem, Brazil’s Fernando Collor de Mello, and Peru’s Alan García. Over the past 15 years, such personalistic leaders have sought to bypass established political parties and interest groups in order to reach “the people” through direct, most often televised, appeals aimed at building up a loyal following from scratch. Because its methods are costly, the new media-based politics has given ambitious politicians much higher incentives to resort to corruption.

In focusing on the rise of neopopulism, which has not received sufficient attention from analysts of corruption, I do not mean to deny that corruption can result from a variety of causes or combinations of causes. For instance, expanding state interventionism underlay the explosion of bribery in Mexico under President José López Portillo, while the neoliberal reduction of such interventionism offered huge opportunities for graft under his successor Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The drug trade has had a devastating impact on Colombia, Mexico, and (to a lesser extent) Peru, but has played a smaller role in Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela. There are many sources of corruption, but the role of neopopulism is an important piece of this complicated puzzle.

Corruption may be defined as the provision of material benefits to politicians and public officials in exchange for illicit influence over their decisions. The corruptor uses private benefits to induce a public decision maker to bend or break formal rules of procedure in order to confer on the corruptor special favors in the adjudication of rights or the allocation of resources. Although it may be tolerated by a country’s citizens, corruption is, by definition, illegal. It is important to distinguish corruption, which entails the illegal sale of special favors, from political patronage, which occurs when public decision makers use their legal margin of discretion to confer favors on their friends and followers without receiving material benefits in return.

Corruption can have two different purposes. Politicians and public officials may sell favorable decisions in order to accumulate funds for political purposes, such as a future election campaign. They may also use bribes to accumulate private wealth. Of course, the boundary between political and personal corruption is fluid. If, for...