Latin America Needs To Be Institutionalized. Seriously

Feb 12, 2015

John Oliver ripping into Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa this week on HBO's "Last Week Tonight."
Credit HBO/YouTube

Kudos to British comedian John Oliver for his hilarious smackdown of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa this week.

The host of HBO’s satirical “Last Week Tonight” skewered – impaled, really – Correa and his juvenile social media war against anyone who dares criticize him. Oliver told the infamously thin-skinned presidente to “stop Googling yourself” and advised him that “being a world leader might not be for you.”

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Problem is, Oliver failed to mention the dark side of Correa’s petulance. While we all get a good YouTube guffaw out of this, the Ecuadorean government is prosecuting investigative journalists, raiding their homes and confiscating their computers under Correa’s “defamation” laws.

The criminal slander they’re charged with: Doing their jobs – that is, probing alleged corruption in Correa’s left-wing administration.

That scrutiny hurts Rafael’s feelings, especially after he just spent $3 million on a Super Bowl ad urging people to come vacation in the Galapagos Islands. So he’s making an example of reporters like Fernando Villavicencio, who faces a two-year prison sentence for “felonies” such as raising red flags about questionable contracts between the state-run oil companies of Ecuador and China.

Ecuador’s official sleaze, and Correa’s benighted criminalization of free speech, reflect a lingering absence of functional, democratic institutions not just in Ecuador but across Latin America. Right now, in fact, there are enough instances of eye-popping corruption and authoritarian governance across the region to keep Oliver’s writers on payroll for another season or two.

Right now there are enough instances of eye-popping corruption and authoritarian governance across Latin America to keep Oliver's writers on payroll for another season or two.

For starters, damas y caballeros, we present former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli and his own, right-wing version of autocratic paranoia. Martinelli spent millions during his 2009-14 government buying up high-tech surveillance equipment to spy on his critics. Those alleged victims say he even videotaped their intimate bedroom moments.

But Martinelli has other alleged vices to answer for besides voyeurism. Since the supermarket tycoon left office, investigators have been dredging a kickback and embezzlement scandal involving the highest echelons of his administration.

The cesspool is so rank it appalls even Panamanians, whose high threshold for piracy has attracted pirates to their isthmus for centuries. Investigators appear to be closing in on Martinelli himself – who, despite declaring his innocence, recently climbed into his private jet for a, well, call it a spur-of-the-moment tour of Latin America, North America, Europe and God knows where else.

Any place but Panama.

And lest you think this is a malady of tiny republics like Ecuador and Panama, consider the current presidents of Latin America’s two largest economies, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto.

Rousseff won re-election last year, but her approval rating sits at 23 percent right now, thanks largely to a massive corruption scandal at Brazil’s state-run oil firm, Petrobras. Prosecutors say the kickback epic involved billions of dollars – and there are rumblings in Brasília that Rousseff may face impeachment if investigators decide she knew about the malfeasance. (She denies it.)

Peña Nieto too is staring into a popularity abyss as deep as Mexico’s Popocatepetl volcano.

He took power in 2012 promising that he’d turned his historically crooked party, the PRI, into a Boy Scout troop. But now he and his soap-opera star wife, as well as top PRI honchos in his government, face mounting questions about mansions and other properties they acquired in sweetheart deals from a firm that’s won lucrative public contacts. (Peña Nieto, his wife and other officials deny any wrongdoing.)

What’s mounting more, however, is Mexicans’ anger over the apparent massacre last September of 43 student protesters at the hands of narco-gangsters allegedly tied to local government officials – a grisly reminder of the country’s entrenched lawlessness.

SWISS BANK ACCOUNTS

The landscape looks no better in Venezuela – where this week we’ve learned that the noble socialist revolution can hide hundreds of millions of dollars in clandestine Swiss bank accounts as ably as any shady capitalist. And where President Nicolás Maduro’s military brass just gave soldiers the green light to shoot anti-government protesters.

Or Argentina, where the scandal over the unsolved shooting death of a special prosecutor – who’d accused President Cristina Fernández of obstructing a terrorism investigation (which she denies) – has cast a more glaring spotlight on the venal and authoritarian rot in Buenos Aires.

The bottom line: If Latin America is ever going to develop, it needs to be institutionalized.

Not the straitjacket institutionalization Oliver suggests for Correa. I’m talking about rule of law, functioning judiciaries, checks and balances and all those other institutions Latin America keeps thumbing its nose at generation after generation.

Why would Brazilian oil bosses believe they can get away with graft involving billions of dollars? Because they usually can get away with it: Until only recently in Brazil, corrupt public officials never went to jail for anything.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, reporters who investigate them can go to prison for years.

That’s not so funny.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.