The Panama Papers: Damning Evidence Against Latin American Elites?

By Emma Fawcett* and Fulton Armstrong

Panama Papers

Photo Credit: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

The “Panama Papers” have revealed the reputed secret accounts and tax-evasion strategies of a number of Latin American leaders, but preexisting widespread perceptions that political and economic elites are corrupt may reduce the immediate shock value of the revelations.  More than 11 million documents leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca – given an initial review by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – provide evidence of 215,000 arrangements by which 14,153 powerful and wealthy clients from around the world hid their money from the prying eyes of the media, tax collectors, and public-accountability experts.  Early reports already indicate Latin Americans – small-time players compared to the Russians and some Europeans – are among those mentioned.

  • The Petrobras scandal that has paralyzed Brazil will find further fuel in these files. Investigators in Operation Car Wash apparently had no knowledge of many accounts held by Petrobras officials.  A secret company linked to House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who’s leading the charge to impeach President Rousseff, reportedly figures prominently.
  • Argentine President Macri, his father, and brother reportedly had an offshore company for 10 years. They closed it in 2009, two years into Macri’s term as Buenos Aires mayor, but he did not report it.  The government says he was only “circumstantially” the CEO.
  • The president of the Chilean branch of Transparency International, Gonzalo Delaveau, resigned because he was linked to at least five offshore companies.
  • Mexican President Peña Nieto’s association with tycoon-contractor Juan Armando Hinojosa, who reportedly had a massive array of shelters worth US$100 million, is once again a liability. The President was dragged through the mud – and eventually exonerated of personal involvement – over a mansion that Hinojosa allegedly gave to his wife.  The Mexican government is investigating several dozen others named in the documents.
  • Many other cases are in the wings. Pedro Delgado (former governor of Ecuadorian Central Bank and cousin of President Correa); financial backers of Peruvian Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori; and an array of former central bank and intelligence officials – Peruvians, Venezuelans, Panamanians, and others – are all being looked at.  In El Salvador, the Attorney General, already criticized for his investigative zeal, has raided Mossack Fonseca’s offices, suggesting more revelations to come.

Allegations of tax evasion, hidden income, and other forms of corruption are a mainstay of Latin American political lifeand the Panama revelations will only aggravate the oft-held opinion that rich, powerful people play by their own rules to maintain wealth and power.  Ramón Fonseca, one of the founders of the law firm, claims that the publicity is part of “an international campaign against privacy,” which he called “a sacred human right [and] there are people in the world who do not understand that.”  The backlash against someone like Argentine President Macri may not be too great, especially because his family ended the tax haven years ago.  But what makes the allegations potentially disruptive is the number of people implicated – across public and private sectors – in so many countries, in an investigation that has only just begun.  Further revelations are sure to come and, although themselves a sign of transparency, challenge people’s faith that leaders will come clean.  The revelations will fuel popular cynicism and discontent in the short term, but renewed demands for transparency may eventually help rekindle popular confidence in government.

April 11, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.   Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

Brazil: Daring to Look at Succession Scenarios

By Silvio Levcovitz*

Lava Jato

Photo Credits: Instituto Liberal (Brasil) and Brasil 247 / Google Images / Labeled for noncommercial reuse

Brazil’s snowballing scandals are generating a high level of uncertainty regarding the country’s political future.  “Operation Car Wash”—a two-year investigation by a task force of the Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutors—has already led to the conviction and 20-year imprisonment of several senior officials from Petrobras and prominent construction companies, and others are likely to follow.  In Brazil, congressmen, cabinet ministers, and the President can be criminally charged only by the Supreme Court, through a long, difficult process called “privileged forum.”  On March 17, former President Lula, under investigation for allegedly receiving two properties as a bribe from construction companies, was designated a Minister of State in President Dilma Rousseff’s administration, an appointment that would have afforded him that protection.  The judge pursuing him released a recording of a call from Dilma offering him immunity as well as Lula’s calls on family and other private matters.  Many in the Brazilian legal community have disapproved of the judge’s disclosure of the calls as disrespecting the rule of law and the right to privacy, but the damage to Dilma and Lula was done.

Calls for the President’s impeachment are surging—and she repeatedly rejects the pressure to resign.  On Sunday, March 13, a half-million people protested in São Paulo, and the press estimates that another 1-2 million demonstrated elsewhere around the country.  (Demonstrations supporting Dilma have attracted 100,000 citizens in São Paulo.)  The PMDB, party of Vice-President Michel Temer and President of the House Eduardo Cunha, is officially quitting the government this week, and other minor parties appear likely to do the same, definitely cracking the presidential support.  The impeachment process in Brazil has two steps.  In the House, two-thirds of its 513 members (342 votes) are required for “admission” or approval, in which case the Senate can decide by majority vote to take up the charges, resulting in the President being suspended for up to 180 days.  Conviction requires the votes of two thirds of the 81 senators.  Although press reports indicate the mood is for the impeachment, the government is offering positions and funds individually to Congressmen and in hopes of achieving a low turnout to stop the process in the House.

Predicting the outcome of such a volatile situation is inherently risky, but discussion of post-Dilma scenarios is growing increasingly common.  Should she step down or be removed from office, Vice-President Michel Temer would be her constitutional successor.  Like Dilma, however, Temer is being charged by the Superior Electoral Court on suspicion of illegal campaign financing and, if convicted, would not be allowed to take office.  The next two in line to succeed her—President of the House Eduardo Cunha and President of the Senate Renan Calheiros—have been snagged by Operation Car Wash and face charges by the Supreme Court, suggesting that they too could be disqualified.  (The Federal Attorney General has already asked the Supreme Court to issue a preventive order to remove Cunha because of evidence that he has received US$5 million in secret Swiss bank accounts, without any justification.)  That leaves Supreme Court President Ricardo Lewandowski as a possible successor for a maximum period of 90 days, at which point elections would be called.  As Brazil faces crisis after crisis, the press have taken to commenting that the country’s fast-paced, dramatic events make the American series House of Cards look slow and boring. 

March 30, 2016

* Silvio Levcovitz is a CLALS Fellow and political science PhD candidate at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas, São Paulo.  He has been a public lawyer in Brazil and is researching criminal cases of corruption and civil claims of administrative misconduct from 1991 to 2014.

Brazil: Not-so-Happy New Year

By Matthew Taylor*

Brazil Basta

Photo Credit: Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira / Flickr / Creative Commons

A vicious combination of corruption scandal and economic malaise suggests a troubled new year awaits Brazil.  Economists estimate gross domestic product has contracted 3 percent this year and will decline a similar amount in 2016, while inflation and weak government finances hamper efforts to stimulate growth.  Two of three big rating agencies have cut Brazilian debt from investment grade to junk. Unemployment has risen from under 7 percent a year ago to nearly 10 percent, with forecasts of 12 percent on the horizon.  Efforts to reform fiscal policy are getting nowhere, and the champion of fiscal reform, Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, has just resigned.  The bonanza launched by the 2003-2010 presidency of Lula da Silva – seemingly setting Brazil on a unique path of state capitalist development – is long over.

The country’s interconnected scandals cast shadows on many of the leading players on the national stage, including President Dilma Rousseff.

  • Petrobras, the crown jewel of Brazil’s state capitalist model, is at the center of allegedly massive corruption schemes. Rousseff, who was chair of the Petrobras board at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, has claimed absolute ignorance.  But the charges implicate Brazil’s leading political and business elites, many of whom have been jailed in recent months.
  • A feud between Dilma and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, reached a new low this month after Cunha’s approval of impeachment proceedings against her. (His own ethics problems continue to fester.)  The charge against Dilma is not of personal corruption but rather that Rousseff flouted budget laws by using public banks to cover up unauthorized debt issuance and off-books spending.  Rousseff supporters have argued that the impeachment charges represent the worst of golpismo, or coup-mongering, and a constitutional overreach that threatens to undermine democracy.

For Brazil, 2016 will be dramatic and unpredictable – as the country weathers the most dangerous political crisis since the impeachment and resignation of President Fernando Collor in 1992.  Dilma’s opponents will have difficulty convincing two-thirds of the Chamber and Senate to oust her, but the crisis is already creating significant fissures in the democratic system.  The parties have been turned upside down.  Even if Dilma survives in office, she faces nearly impossible odds in restoring the credibility of her administration and party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT.  There are early indications that the PT will face a bloodletting in the 2016 municipal elections, and former President Lula, the party’s once-ironclad standard-bearer, has the highest rejection rate (55 percent) of any potential candidate in the 2018 presidential contest.  The PMDB, Dilma’s coalition partner, is threatening to break with the government, but is internally divided. The opposition PSDB is facing scandals, protests, and troubles of its own in the states it governs.  The newfound proactivity of prosecutors and judges is making democratic checks and balances work as never before – and is largely welcomed by Brazilians – but Brazil’s old party system may not be able to keep pace.  Rumblings for a rethinking of the political system will grow louder in the new year, as the crisis deepens.

December 21, 2015

*Matthew M. Taylor is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University.