The Odebrecht scandal is shaking Latin America’s political elite like a tsunami, going after ex-presidents and in some cases, current presidents.
In each country that the company successfully operated, it penetrated circles of power with different bribery sums, but in every country the “Made in Brazil” corruption scheme pursued the same objective: winning lucrative contracts.
The silver lining of this scandal is the lessons learned it offers Latin American leaders to transform politics in their countries, including strengthening the transparency of campaign financing, the root and sustenance of their political careers. For these reasons, it is worth analyzing the concrete actions Latin American leaders are taking on the road to reform.
Peru’s Political Will: Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK)
Against the backdrop of the Odebrecht scandal, Peru has shown itself to be the most proactive Latin American country in terms of its president’s political will to put an end to the corruption. Although the Peruvian measures may be seen as a form of populism, they will mark a clear break with the levels of corruption tolerated in this country. Peru received bribes totaling more than $29 million and has detained three senior officials involved in the case. Moreover, the administrations of three former presidents are all under investigation: Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006); Alan Garcia (2006-2011); and Ollanta Humala (2011-2016).
On February 3, 2017, Peruvian authorities entered the house of ex-President Alejandro Toledo under the accusation that he had received $20 million in bribes originating from Odebrecht. On February 9, the judge Richard Concepcion ordered 18 months of prison without bail for the ex-president.
The following day, Toledo was declared a fugitive from Peruvian justice, included in a list of the country’s most wanted criminals with a reward for his capture. These measures were taken in spite of the fact that Peru’s current President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, also known as PPK, served as president of Peru’s Council of Ministers under Alejandro Toledo’s government a decade ago, showing clear signs of independence. According to Peru’s El Comercio, President Kuczynski said that the country has taken all necessary measures under the law, both in Peru and internationally, to secure Toledo’s return to Peru so that he can clarify his involvement before Peruvian authorities.
President Kuczynski announced drastic measures in response to the Odebrecht scandal when he said in a televised address, “We need a radical change. We need to organize and clean house in order to govern in an honest way. We need to unify the executive, legislative, judiciary, and you (the country).”
As a first step, he issued a decree permanently barring corrupt politicians from public office, which he announced by saying, “I have called for the civil death of corrupt officials.” As a show of his commitment toward transparency and accountability, President Kuczynski also announced that he and all of the ministers in his government would disclose their personal finances. President Kuczynski then established that all contracts should include an anti-corruption clause. Additionally, he announced his administration would reward citizens and public officials who serve as whistleblowers to help denounce and hold accountable those involved in acts of corruption.
Overall, President Kuczynski described the Odebrecht case as, “rotting corruption.” One of the highest profile projects that Odebrecht was working on in Peru is the southern gas pipeline, which the president indicated would continue now that a $262 million fine was paid by Odebrecht to Peru for breach of contract. The rest of the project would be open for re-bid to other companies.
How are Latin American Countries Handling the Odebrecht scandal?
The following is an analysis of eight countries in Latin America aimed at determining how their presidents are addressing the Odebrecht scandal following the extensive investigations in Brazil. The scandal involves some presidents directly, while forces others to take drastic action.
Mauricio Macri, Argentina: 'Friends, in Good Times and Bad'
In Argentina, the Odebrecht investigation has made little progress with insufficient efforts to hold individuals accountable despite identifying more than $35 million in bribes. There has been one high-level official — a member of President Mauricio Macri’s inner circle — implicated in the Odebrecht scandal. This official is Director of the Federal Intelligence Agency of Argentina Gustavo Arribas, who may have received $600,000 in bribes. Regarding President Macri’s position on the scandal, La Nación indicated that Macri said, “I do not understand how Arribas is related to the Odebrecht scandal. I still do not understand this link. It is made up.”
On January 17, 2017, President Macri defended Gustavo Arribas’ innocence in Argentina’s first press conference of 2017 in the presidential Casa Rosada. During the press conference, Macri explained that the discrepancy with the money Arribas allegedly received had to do with the sale of an apartment, and that it was a coincidence that this payment originated from the same person who served as Odebrecht’s fixer in Argentina. On February 19, one of Argentina’s prosecutors received information that Odebbrecht sent five transactions to Arribas. Some may find this allegation ironic since Arribas’ nickname is, “Mr. Five.”
Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia: 'From the Nobel Prize to International Scrutiny'
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, no one imagined that President Santos could have links to an international corruption network. Colombian authorities are currently investigating if President Santos’ 2014 re-election campaign received $1 million from Odebrecht. This money could have been received by former Senator Otto Nicolas Bula’s company. Currently, Bula is being detained on related charges. President Santos took immediate action to address the Odebrecht scandal, sending a message via his Twitter account, “I request CNE (National Electoral Council) open a thorough investigation into the Odebrecht case as soon as possible so the full truth comes to light.” This message was President Santos’ first regarding Odebrecht.
In a recent interview published by El Tiempo, the president stated, “I am the person who is most interested in a fast and serious investigation, and that the results are known soon.” In mid-February, Colombia’s House of Representatives Accusations Commission formally opened a preliminary investigation against Juan Manuel Santos. This investigation was opened by a representative from an opposition party, Alvaro Hernan Prada of the Democratic Center, the party of former President Alvaro Uribe. There is also an investigation into the campaign of Santos’ opponent, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who is accused of receiving $2 million from Odebrecht for the 2014 elections.
Rafael Correa: 'Leaving by Example'
Ecuador is in the midst of presidential elections and its lame-duck president Rafael Correa wants to leave the house in order for his successor by taking a position in favor of investigating the Odebrecht case. Correa recently complained that though there were $33.5 million in bribes paid in Ecuador, the individuals involved in the case remain unknown.
“I hope the Department of Justice soon reveals the names that Odebrecht has provided,” said President Correa. It has already been announced that Ecuador’s Attorney General Galo Chiriboga would travel to Washington to gather more information about the case. Meanwhile, in January 2017, President Correa announced that Ecuador was searching for more information in Brazil, for which Attorney General Chiriboga recently visited Brasilia to participate in a regional meeting of attorney generals about the Odebrecht case.
According to the newspaper El Universo, in one of Correa’s weekly briefings, he mentioned that Ecuador’s Treasury Inspector’s Office would investigate the finances of public officials and that they would disclose names of those individuals involved in the Odebrecht bribery case.
Jimmy Morales, Guatemala: 'Showing his Serious Side'
Former comedian, Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales is currently preoccupied with the future of his administration, announcing rumors of a future coup d’etat on February 16 of this year. Regarding Odebrecht, President Morales said on February 8, 2017 that there was not yet an international case opened against the engineering firm because first, they needed to exhaust all legal and administrative options in Guatemala.
According to the Prensa Libre, Morales said for there to be an international case, “it is the nation’s Attorney General that should bring charges after there is a thorough investigation with legitimate charges.” However, the Communications Minister of Guatemala Aldo Garcia had announced in January that he would be charging former public officials — among them former minister Alejandro Sinibaldi — for modifying a contract with Odebrecht.
Enrique Peña Nieto: 'Building a Wall against Corruption'
International political affairs such as U.S. President Trump’s call for a construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the future of NAFTA steal the spotlight of domestic headlines, reason for which there has been minimal coverage of the Odebrecht case in Mexico. However, according to Argentina’s Infobae, Mexico’s Attorney General traveled to Brazil to discuss information about the Odebrecht case and the involvement of Mexico’s national oil company PEMEX.
Odebrecht is also on the Secretary of Public Administration’s list of the top 30 priority investigations in Mexico because of this possible illicit relationship between Odebrecht and PEMEX. As it relates to President Enrique Peña Nieto, the only known link is that he had met with Odebrecht’s President Marcelo Odebrecht in October 2013. Mexico’s President has not spoken to the country about measures he would take against the Odebrecht case, should concrete irregularities emerge.
Juan Carlos Varela, Panama: 'On the Hunt'
At the end of January 2017, before the Odebrecht scandal involved Panama’s current President Juan Carlos Varela, he was meeting with his cabinet analyzing the proposed charges to be filed against the engineering firm for bribes paid, in addition to the financial difficulties of the Panama City Metro project.
Odebrecht had the lead contract on the metro project, along with the Spanish firm FCC. In the Odebrecht case in Panama, among those accused of receiving bribery payments are former President Martinelli’s children. Moreover, in February 2017, President Varela denied the allegation made by former Panamanian official Ramon Fonseca that Varela’s election campaign received money from Odebrecht. On February 15, 2017, President Varela reiterated that he had not received any campaign donations from the firm saying, “I made public a list of donors to my presidential campaign, and it was open for debate.”
Until the implication that Panama’s current president could have linkages to the Odebrecht scandal, Panama and Peru had been the most aggressive countries in prosecuting these corruption cases. Panama’s Office of the Attorney General had identified 17 people connected with receiving bribes totaling $59 million. It remains to be seen the direction President Varela will take now that his own administration is under extreme scrutiny.
Danilo Medina, Dominican Republic: 'Silence and a Secret Agreement'
President Danilo Medina of Dominican Republic received the highest approval rating (80 percent) of any Latin American leader during his first term as president, 2012-2016. However, as he begins his second term as President, he is now facing a significantly lower approval rating (50 percent), pointing to the most serious political crisis of his career. Dominican Republic’s exposure to the Odebrecht scandal has rubbed salt in these wounds. On January 22, 2017, thousands of Dominicans took to the streets calling for greater action against corruption and impunity, especially related to Odebrecht, which paid $92 million of bribes in the country. There is another large-scale protest planned for February 22, 2017 in 17 Dominican cities as the pressure intensifies to identify wrongdoers and hold them accountable.
The government has decided to take a different route by having its Attorney General negotiate directly with Odebrecht. These confidential talks have secured $184 million in fines that Odebrecht will pay to the Dominican government in exchange for immunity for the company and to continue operating in the country. Yet, there are still no known recipients of the large sums of bribes Odebrecht paid in exchange for contracts in Dominican Republic. President Medina created a commission to investigate the Odebrecht case, which drew criticism since some of its members are claimed to have conflicts of interest with the Brazilian engineering firm. President Medina, known more for his deeds than his words, remains silent.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela: 'Sending a Clear Sign'
Reports claim Venezuela has received $98 million in bribes from Odebrecht, and President Maduro indicated that Venezuela would terminate all of their ongoing contracts. Venezuela would instead complete these projects with local Venezuelan resources — including engineering talent, capital, and labor.
What’s more is that on February 12, 2017, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro sent a clear message to his country and the Venezuelan authorities when he requested jail sentences for individuals who received bribes from Odebrecht. At a rally on the same day celebrating Youth Day in Venezuela, President Maduro stated, “I give all my support to the Office of the Attorney General and to the Judiciary so that justice can be served in the Odebrecht case, and those responsible for receiving bribes be sent to jail.”
Two days later, on February 14, 2017, the Venezuelan Military Counterintelligence Agency seized Odebrecht’s offices in Caracas. Less than 24 hours after the raid, Venezuelan authorities announced they were freezing Odebrecht’s assets and bank accounts. Among President Maduro’s anti-corruption measures, is the creation of a program called, “Socialist Justice Mission,” aimed to combat not only corruption, but also crime.
On the Road to Reform
Beyond a clear regional approach to the Odebrecht scandal in Latin America, political survival proves paramount. Each country’s response to their own case is a calculated strategy aimed at strengthening public confidence in the current administration while taking necessary reforms to identify and hold individuals accountable. The primary lesson learned is the value of democracy in Latin America—strong institutions, access to public information, and accountability. Where governments fall short in these measures to ensure the pillars of open government, the public will make its voice heard—both in the street and at the ballot box in the next elections.
Geovanny Vicente Romero is the founder of the Dominican Republic Center of Public Policy, Leadership and Development (CPDL-RD). He is a political analyst and lecturer based in Washington, D.C. Reach him on Twitter @geovannyvicentr