Odebrecht is the name of the largest construction company in Latin America and one of the most efficient. What’s novel is not that it paid million-dollar bribes throughout Latin America but that that crime became an international scandal and sent to prison dozens of corrupt functionaries and the executives who paid out the bribes. That, for sure, is extremely rare.
The odd thing is that engineer Marcelo Odebrecht, the heir and leader of a Brazilian company with 167,000 workers, operating in 60 countries, ended up behind bars sentenced to 19 years in prison for doing fraudulent business. In many of those deals, he was dragged down by the trickery committed when assigning the contracts of Petrobrás, his country’s oil giant.
Odebrecht distributed money under the table profusely. In his country, in the days of Lula da Silva, 349 million dollars. In Chávez’s Venezuela, 98. In the Kirchners’ Argentina, 35. In Rafael Correa’s Ecuador, 33 (additional proof that the “21st-Century socialists” are the 21st-Century’s worst crooks.) In Panama, 59. In the Dominican Republic, 92; in Peru, 29. In Guatemala, 18. In Colombia, 11, and in Mexico, a little over 10 million.
The total is almost 800 million dollars in bribes, for which the company has agreed to pay a 3.5 billion dollar fine in the United States, of which almost a third corresponds to Braskem S.A., a huge subsidiary engaged in petrochemical work.
Why did Marcelo Odebrecht and other executives fess up to their crimes? Because some years ago a law was passed in Brazil that reduced the sentences of convicted criminals if they cooperated with Justice. It wasn’t a sudden attack of bad (or good) conscience but a legal maneuver to stay out of the hellish Brazilian jails.
In a way, this shakeup has come to the aid of the much-abused liberal democracy. The idea that we all are equal before the law presupposes that we all are obligated to obey it, and there’s no doubt that in three fourths of the planet, including almost all of Latin America, that principle is not respected.
The impunity with which elected politicians or functionaries at the highest levels break the law and become millionaires has two devastating effects on the population. On one hand, it generates an atmosphere of total cynicism toward a system of government that claims to obey the law but does the contrary. On the other hand, it provokes imitations of corruption in cascade.
Many lesser functionaries sell the paperwork they’re dutybound to do; policemen negotiate the fines they impose, resell the cocaine they’ve confiscated or discreetly join the rosters of the mafia.
How could one be surprised that half of the Mexican police — 250,000 people — was corrupt when almost all of that country’s political hierarchy committed similar crimes?
Years ago, the brother of a noted Spanish politician accused of influence peddling became famous with a revealing statement that met with society’s benevolent acceptance: “What’s the matter? Will the same people always do the robbing?”
One of the best contemporary American thinkers, Douglass North — Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences (1983) for demonstrating the relationship between the functioning of the institutions of law and prosperity — explained in one of his final essays that nations could be divided into two groups: one with “open access,” relatively small, and the other, much larger, with “limited access.”
Those with open access, led by the United States and followed by the 25 most successful nations, based their functioning and the success of individuals on meritocracy, the market and obedience to the law. Those with limited access, on personal contact and violation of the law.
In those with open access, most people aren’t bothered that Bill Gates or Warren Buffett enriched themselves working by the rules, but they don’t tolerate a person who takes advantage of the system and enriches himself through trickery. This doesn’t mean that such persons don’t exist but it means that they’re opposed and despised.
In limited-access nations, “he who has a godfather gets baptized” and all kinds of abuses and foul deeds are committed in the presence of a society mired in corruption and anesthetized by the impunity in which “the winners” operate.
This is what’s changing before our eyes. Many societies are changing their skin and passing from limited to open access. The great revolution of the 21st Century is that of honesty. It takes a while, but it happens.
*Journalist and writer. His latest book is the novel A Time for Scoundrels.
*The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author.*