By Andres Oppenheimer
A new study on corruption in Latin America contains some alarming figures — an average of about 20 percent of the region’s people say they have been asked to pay a bribe by a policeman or another public official in the past year, compared with 5 percent in the United States and 3 percent in Canada.
The Americas Barometer poll by Vanderbilt University, whose full findings are to be released Thursday at the University of Miami’s Center for Latin American Studies, shows that in some Latin American countries like Haiti, Bolivia and Ecuador, the number of people who say they were asked to pay bribes last year surpasses 40 percent.
These three regional champions of corruption are followed not far behind by Mexico, Peru and Honduras, where the percentage of people who say they were asked to pay bribes by public servants is 31 percent, 28 percent and 26 percent respectively, according to the poll of 40,000 people in 26 countries.
The new poll is one of the most valuable tools to measure countries’ corruption levels. Unlike other surveys that ask people whether their countries are corrupt — something that can be easily influenced by the media headlines of the day — this one asked about their personal experiences of corruption.
Among the countries that are in the middle of the list of corruption victims are Argentina, where about 20 percent of the people say they have been asked to pay a bribe over the past 12 months, Colombia (16 percent) and Venezuela (15 percent).
Surprisingly, the countries with below-average corruption rates include Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff has fired more than a half-dozen cabinet ministers because of allegations of corruption, and where the Supreme Court last year sentenced powerful ruling party politician Jose Dirceu to a 10-year prison term in the country’s biggest corruption scandal in recent times.
A relatively low 11 percent of Brazilians say they have been asked to pay a bribe over the past 12 months, the poll shows. Latin America’s cleanest country is Chile, where only 6 percent say they have been asked to pay a bribe, the poll shows.
Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, a Vanderbilt professor who was among the poll’s supervisors, told me that while overall corruption victim numbers in the region rose slightly in 2012, it’s not a uniform trend.
“The countries that are driving that general increase in the region are Ecuador, Bolivia, Haiti and Honduras,” she said, adding that the poll is done every two years.
In Ecuador, the number of people who said they were asked to pay a bribe doubled over the past two years, from 21 percent in 2010 to 41 percent in 2012. Conversely, in Brazil, the figure fell dramatically, from 24 percent in 2010 to the current 11 percent, the poll shows.
What can we learn from these figures? I asked Ariel Armony, head of U.M.’s Center for Latin American Studies and an academic partner of Vanderbilt’s study.
“They show that when people think that institutions are corrupt, and that there is no rule of law, they are more likely to pay and accept bribes,” he said. “On the other hand, when people see that the government is cracking down on corruption, like in Brazil, people behave more honestly.”
My opinion: I agree. It may be no coincidence that last year, when news of harsh sentences against top ruling party politicians dominated the headlines in Brazil, the number of Brazilians who were asked to pay bribes fell by half.
And it may be no coincidence that Chile, which has strong institutions, emerged in the poll as the Latin American country with the lowest number of bribery cases.
Granted, there are many other causes of corruption, including excessive government regulations and huge bureaucracies. The more government inspectors you have, the more opportunities they have to ask for bribes.
But, in general, corruption starts from the top, and gets stopped from the top. The good news is that Brazil, the biggest country in the region, is showing the way of how to fight corruption — from the top down. It would be great if all of Brazil’s neighbors followed its steps.