One of the most interesting things about the latest 174-country ranking of world corruption released last week by the Berlin-based Transparency International monitoring group was that Barbados, Chile and Uruguay ranked alongside the United States among the world’s 20 most honest countries.
While virtually all media headlines on the ranking released Dec. 5 focused on the most corrupt countries of the world, and of each region, the fact that there were three Latin American and Caribbean countries among the world’s cleanest nations — and that they consistently rank that way in these annual indexes — went almost unnoticed.
It’s something that deserves closer attention, because it defies stereotypes that corruption is a regional disease that runs in the DNA of Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, which uses public opinion polls and business people’s surveys among other studies to measure each country’s corruption levels, goes in descending order from the least corrupt to the most corrupt countries in the world.
The ranking is headed by Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, (tied in first place), followed by Sweden (fourth), Singapore (fifth) and Switzerland (sixth).
Also among the world’s 20 least corrupt countries in the world are Germany (13th), Barbados (15th), the United Kingdom (17th) and the United States (19th), followed by Chile and Uruguay (tied in the 20th place). Bahamas is tied with France in the 22nd place.
Conversely, two thirds of Latin American countries are ranked in the bottom half of the list. Venezuela and Haiti are the most corrupt countries in the Americas and among the most corrupt in the world, tied in the 165th place with Chad, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe, according to the ranking.
Other countries in the region that fared pretty badly are Paraguay (150th), Honduras (133rd), Nicaragua (130th), Ecuador (118th), Mexico and Bolivia (tied in the 105th place) and Argentina (102nd).
Why are Barbados, Chile and Uruguay less corrupt than other countries in the region, I asked Alejandro Salas, a Transparency International official in charge of Latin America.
Salas told me that it’s mainly because these democracies have powerful systems of checks and balances, with independent judiciaries, assertive legislative branches, and a free press.
“There’s no mysterious formula, other than allowing democracy to work,” Salas said. “That’s why there is such a stark contrast between these three countries and Venezuela, where the opposite is taking place.”
There are reasons to be hopeful, Salas said. Brazil (69th), the biggest country in the region, has recently taken dramatic steps to combat corruption, which may be reflected in the ranking in coming years, he said.
Earlier this year, Brazil set in motion a transparency law to open public records to citizens, as well as another “clean record” law that bars people with criminal records from running for public office.
In addition, President Dilma Rousseff fired more than a half-dozen Cabinet ministers for alleged corrupt practices, or suspicions thereof, in recent months.
Perhaps even more importantly, Brazil’s Supreme Court last month sentenced powerful ruling party politician Jose Dirceu — the former chief of staff of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — to a 10-year prison term in connection with a highly publicized case involving government bribes to legislators. Many Brazilians feared that, because of Dirceu’s close political ties with Rousseff, the court would not dare touch him.
My opinion: The fact that Barbados, Chile, and Uruguay consistently rank among the world’s least corrupt countries shows that — contrary to beliefs that tropical weather, or Latin America’s Spanish heritage, or other cultural factors are at the root of high corruption levels — the region is not biologically condemned to being corrupt.
Corrupt countries are in most cases the result of corrupt governments. Corrupt governments generate an everything-goes mindset among the population — a generalized feeling that “if everybody else does it, why shouldn’t I?” Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina are good examples of this (and, some may argue, have long been).
But — as has been proved in Hong Kong and other places — corruption can be reduced with effective systems of checks and balances, independent judiciaries, and more government measures to reduce regulations and bureaucracies. The more government inspectors there are, the bigger the chances of extortion and bribery.
If Brazil’s latest measures are reflected in next year’s ranking, and Latin America’s biggest country moves closer to the top of the list, it will show that yes, it can be done, and that Barbados, Chile and Uruguay are not exceptions to the rule.