12 May 2020 –
The UNCAC Coalition’s new regional coordinator for Latin America, Iñaki Albisu Ardigo, recently reached out to leading anti-corruption organisations in the Latin American region to find out how the COVID-19 epidemic is affecting good governance and anti-corruption efforts. At a time where the crisis has yet to reach its peak in the region, this article provides an insight into how several countries are restricting freedom of information, freedom of speech and how the crisis is deeply affecting how civil society organisations can work to advocate for more transparency and less corruption.
The political situation in the region is very unstable. The new administrations in Argentina and Uruguay see themselves confronted with particular challenges, since the change in authorities and public servants is occurring at the same time as the crisis. In other countries, notably Chile, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Ecuador, upcoming elections and referenda are forcing governments to mitigate risks to their citizens’ health, and to their democracies’ institutional resilience.
Opacity in procurement
A major concern all over the region is the way that procurement is being handled during the crisis: public procurement processes aimed to ensure transparency and fight against corruption are being systematically ignored as emergency procedures are applied.
In Ecuador, the country with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita in the region, there have been numerous complaints of overpricing around the procurement of medical supplies and medicine, having led to the resignation of the Minister of Health. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (Comisión Nacional Anticorrupción Ecuador or CNAE) is pushing for the state to cut out the middlemen from these purchases and has called for a strict vigilance of public purchasing to ensure that the public health system can cope with the oncoming influx of infected people. They have also proactively published a list of state suppliers and contractors on their website, a move which German Rodas, coordinator of the Commission, said has led to various threats of violence directed toward members of the CNAE.
Similarly, Paraguay has experienced numerous corruption scandals related to procurement during the COVID-19 crisis. Accusations of overpricing and suspicions of kickbacks in the purchase of face-masks have led to dismissals and resignations at both the National Directorate of Civil Aviation (DINAC) and PETROPAR, the national oil company. In neighbouring Uruguay, overpricing has not been a big problem, according to Veronica García Leites, Director of Uruguay Transparente. She holds that the lack of transparency predates the COVID-19 crisis, but notes that concerns have been raised by local media due to the awarding of contracts to family members of public officials.
In Mexico, the civil society organisation PODER has called out a state of emergency around procurement, where the direct award of procurement contracts without competitive tenders by the government do not have to be justified other than by indicating that purchases are required because of the COVID-19 crisis. According to Eduard Martín Borregón from PODER, different media reports have already identified suspicious instances of opacity.
Limited access to information
The right of public access to information has suffered some setbacks during the crisis as well. In Mexico, some agencies within the federal and state governments have virtually stopped answering access to information requests, according to Martín Borregón. Thanks to civil society pressure, the National Institute for Access to Information (INAI) has recently announced that it will continue to monitor if public agencies that have committed to respecting the legal time-frames for responses in access to information requests, actually comply with doing so. Transparency International Brasil has similarly experienced a back-and-forth of government policies that restrict answers to information requests, which they and other Brazilian organizations have spoken out against since the crisis began. A controversial amendment to the freedom of information act was recently struck down by a federal judge after litigation initiated by civil society organisations.
Marta Ferrara from the Paraguayan organisation Semillas para la Democracia shared some cases of silencing of whistleblowers and proactive withholding of public information within the public health sector, leading to uncertainty about the official figures of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Most of the UNCAC Coalition’s regional member organisations that were consulted for this blog article noted that access to information has either remained the same or worsened, many doubting that any improvements would be possible during the crisis.
A slow switch to virtual platforms
Anti-corruption watchdogs all over the region have had to adapt to quarantine and social distancing regulations in order to continue monitoring the state. Restricted mobility, fewer responses to access to public information requests, and a shift in the focus of attention towards health and security concerns have proven to be great challenges to working at this time. The civil society organisation Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (FCD) from Ecuador, for example, transitioned all of its activities to remote work from home, increasing its use of digital platforms and social media to engage citizens. Executive Director Mauricio Alarcón jokes that their rapid and effective adoption of these platforms stands in stark contrast to the country’s government agencies’ lack of adoption and poor use of digital platforms.
In Uruguay, the Red de Gobierno Abierto, a network of organisations which Uruguay Transparente is a part of, came together through Zoom to discuss governance challenges provoked by the crisis. They have drafted a statement entitled “Transparency and open data in the context of the COVID-19 crisis” as a framework for action during the crisis. Used to working remotely, PODER, which is based in Mexico, is working through social media with the hashtag #EmpresasConTache using collective digital action to identify companies who defy labour regulations to reduce salaries and benefits of workers, force them to request unpaid leave, or force them to work in high-risk working conditions with the threat of dismissal.
Finally, the COVID-19 crisis has shed a bright light on already weak governance structures in Latin America, which are continuously deteriorating. Nevertheless, the crisis offers an opportunity to hold governments to account for their performance and to find new solutions to strengthen integrity systems and anti-corruption frameworks in the region. It is fundamental that government responses to the crisis be exercised transparently, and that corruption controls not be avoided. Corruption, just like the COVID-19, can have lethal and destructive consequences if governments do not take decisive action to stop it.
Thank you to German Rodas (Comisiòn Nacional Anticorrupción Ecuador), Mauricio Alarcón (Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo Eduador), Verónica García Leites (Uruguay Transparente), Eduard Martín Borregón (PODER), and Marta Ferrara (Semillas para la Democracia), for their valuable inputs.