Latin America Leans Clean ; Electing Leftists Isn't as Critical as Fighting Corruption

Article excerpt

Oh, what a decade of stagnation can do. With all the conformity of a flock of birds turning left, South American voters in recent elections have turned away politicians who had pushed open-market policies in the 1990s. Last week, that regional trend was solidified with the inauguration of a leftist president in Uruguay, a doctor named Tabare Vazquez who promises to cure poverty.

Now, with this electoral veering, three-quarters of South Americans are governed by parties offering more social services and a stronger government hand in the economy - albeit with more pragmatic regard for market realities than leftist leaders of decades past.

But this popular backlash against what's called "neoliberal" economics may really be misplaced.

The open-market policies pushed on the region by the United States and the International Monetary Fund did suppress the inflation that had ravaged South America and led to sell-offs of inefficient state enterprises. At the same time, promises of high economic growth, reduced poverty, and less income inequality weren't really fulfilled.

In the narrow debate between left and right economics, the right took it on the chin. Voters flew to the left, more out of political exasperation than nostalgic embrace.

Anticorruption campaign

But something else is happening in South America these days that may have a better chance of boosting lackluster economies: a regionwide campaign against official corruption.

The art of stealing in high places is well practiced in these countries. A 2003 survey by the World Economic Forum of business leaders found that seven of the 10 countries with consistently high measures of political corruption are in Latin America. And within the region, 90 percent of people in a UN survey said they believe graft is worsening; many see corruption as their nations' biggest problem.

Countries that effectively address corruption and improve the rule of law can quadruple their national incomes, the World Bank claims. Corruption's worst effects are a dangerous erosion in popular respect for democracy and a scaring off of foreign investors and traders.

So, what's being done about bribery and other forms of graft? …