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Corruption is the Modern Slavery

Half a millennium since the brutal conquest of the Americas by Europeans, the practice of slavery has been outlawed and eradicated. In its place the enslaving and dehumanizing practices of official corruption have become pandemic, once again separating the haves from the have-nots. It’s time to change cultural attitudes and eradicate this pernicious form of modern slavery.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst
Clockwise: Lula, Martinelli, Maduro, Garcia, Kirschner, Ortega, Pena Nieto, Perez Molina. Crédito: David Maris/AP/Reuters/Univision

On Wednesday, former two-time president of Peru, Alan Garcia, put a bullet in his head rather than face the ignominy of a public trial on charges that he took bribes in the hemispheric Odebrecht scandal.

In Guatemala, former president Otto Perez Molina, his Vice President and over two dozen other officials from his government stand accused of a massive, illicit enrichment scheme involving the Guatemalan Customs Service.

In Panama, former president Ricardo Martinelli is on trial for illegal espionage against political enemies. It is also alleged that Martinelli stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the Panamanian treasury in a multitude of corruption cases involving large infrastructure projects.

In Brazil, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is serving a twelve-year prison sentence for his corrupt actions in the ' Lava Jato' (Car wash) scandal. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office not for taking public funds herself, but for knowingly and illegally shifting them to social services accounts to make her more appealing for re-election.

The former president of Argentina president Cristina Kirschner, currently a Senator, is hiding from arrest behind her parliamentary immunity, while prosecutors investigate her for alleged kickbacks from local construction companies.

In the most brazen example of hemispheric graft and the wholesale sacking of a public treasury, Venezuela's unconstitutional government of Nicolas Maduro is little more than a narco-petroleum, criminal conspiracy posing as a human-rights violating governmental regime. The list sadly goes on to include former leaders and senior officials of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and the U.S.-sanctioned kleptocracy of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

To even the most casual of observers, official corruption is a hemispheric pandemic that cheats taxpayers and makes amazingly wealthy the governing few at the expense of hard-working many. It is high time we diagnose this cancer correctly and that Latin societies take the necessary corrective actions to change their laws… and their cultures… to outlaw and end corruption as they once did slavery.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has chosen to politicize its views on Latin American public corruption. It sanctions those self-proclaimed socialists and left-wing governments yet remains conspicuously silent about the accused corrupt leaders and governments that come from a center-right or conservative ideological background. It says nothing about a stolen Honduran presidential election or the pervasive allegations that Panama’s outgoing president is running a fire sale of the country’s infrastructure projects with his new best friends in Beijing.

On the same day that Alan Garcia took his own life, National Security Adviser John Bolton delivered in Miami a severe criticism of the communist, totalitarian regime in Havana and the socialist regimes in Caracas and Managua. In the context of the 58th anniversary of the failed invasion by CIA-backed irregular fighters at the Bay of Pigs, Bolton lambasted the 'Troika of Tyranny' for their ideological orientation. Fair enough. But he barely mentioned the true operating ethos of all three regimes: they are putrid, corrupt authoritarians who gorge upon the fruits of public coffers, while denying their people basic human rights and liberties.

Calling out a failed 20 thcentury political system as the main culprit is the wrong diagnosis.

To begin with, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are anything but socialist states resembling Scandinavian or Western European democratic socialism. Playing as much to a U.S domestic base as a regional audience via the coded language of anti-socialism, Bolton failed to recognize that those regimes have not impoverished their people because they are communists or socialists. Rather, they have created a greater delta between the haves and the have-nots because of rampant corruption throughout the senior governing leadership of those three countries.

While elegizing a few brave Cuban-Americans who valiantly sought to defeat the incipient Castro regime by force of arms, only to be left stranded without air cover by the ' Yanquis', Bolton should have offered a better diagnosis of Cuba and the region: corruption is new slavery, whether it comes in the form of Havana’s authoritarian rule or democratic governance in Peru. The United States should focus on that aspect of regional impoverishment and theft, not a discredited, bumper sticker philosophy based on Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin.

For those who prefer to see glasses half-full, there is some cause for optimism in this struggle. A courageous judiciary in Brazil painstakingly investigated Odebrecht. The U.S. Southern District of New York prosecuted a worldwide FIFA soccer case. In Mexico, a new president with allegedly “socialist” tendencies was nonetheless elected, in part, because he is personally abstemious and notoriously non-corrupt. While he may damage Mexico's credit rating and scare off foreign domestic investment, if AMLO leaves office in five and a half years and still drives a Volkswagon Jetta and lives in the same middle class apartment, he will prove that leaders, regardless of political philosophy, are able to resist the siren song of corruption.

Finally, in Panama, the independent presidential candidate Ricardo Lombana appears to be defying pollsters' predictions and is generating electoral enthusiasm among a polity disgusted by Panama's legacy of corrupt leaders. A testament to Lombana's squeaky-clean biography, his rise in popularity is also a genuine cry for change from voters fed up with the modern slavery of corruption and graft.

The United States is not immune from public sector graft. However, it is undeniably better prepared to control it via mechanisms of internal investigation and transparency. It could significantly boost the cause of anti-corruption if it were to signal its disgust and rejection of “friendly” yet corrupt center-right or conservative leaders and their governments, too. Sadly, Bolton and others prefer to reprise the greatest hits of the Cold War communist threat, which is long gone as the overlord of repression and has been replaced by corruption as the true slave master of the American peoples.

*Dedicated to Miroslava Herrera, a true patriot and anti-slavery activist.