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Public Intolerance for Graft Is Toppling Latin Leaders

LATIN America has never been noted for effective anticorruption crusades. But the unprecedented downfall of several leaders in the region is sending a poignant warning: Graft may now be hazardous to one's political health.

"We're witnessing a striking, fast-moving change. It's extraordinarily encouraging," says Paul Boeker, a former United States Ambassador to Bolivia and director of the Institute of the Americas, a La Jolla, California-based think tank. "Accountability," says Mr. Boeker, "is one of the most important elements of a deepening democracy."

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In country after country, top government officials are being toppled by corruption charges.

* In December, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello became the first president in Latin American history to resign. Impeachment charges had been brought against him by the Senate for extorting $6.5 million from businesses seeking government contracts.

* In May, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez and two former Cabinet members were charged with embezzling and misusing $17.5 million in public funds. Mr. Perez is the first president in Venezuela's history to be forced from office under a cloud of corruption.

* In May, Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias preempted a congressional investigation into the misuse of public funds by staging his own coup dtat. He disbanded the congress and judiciary and assumed dictatorial control. On June 1, Mr. Serrano was ousted as his military benefactors bowed to international and local outrage over his actions.

The anticorruption wave is also enveloping former top government officials. In Bolivia, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, and the Dominican Republic there are trials under way or just finished involving criminal charges against former presidents. The old response

Traditionally, Latin America's military-backed rulers responded to charges of graft by ignoring them or sending their accusers funeral bouquets. But under the emerging democracies in the region, political leaders are finding they are being held to higher standards than in the past.

Political scientists offer several explanations for the emergence of this trend. In each country there are different elements at work. But essentially, "it's an inevitable part of the democratic process," says William LeoGrande, director of government studies at American University in Washington.

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The acceptance of a democratic system means that the relatively small circle of power, traditionally occupied by wealthy families and the military, is now widening, analysts say. Human rights activists and other civic groups are more expressive and aggressive in exercising their rights under a democratic constitution.

The judicial and legislative institutions do remain weak in comparison to powerful executive branches. But the acceptance of a democratic blueprint is forcing presidents to be more responsive, at least in image if not in substance, to the other arms of government. Opposition parties find themselves with a real role to play, and the media are increasingly independent, amplifying and investigating charges made by civic and opposition groups.

"In the past we've seen anticorruption campaigns initiated by governments - for example, by [former Mexican President] Miguel de la Madrid," says Lucrecia Lozano, director of the Center for International Relations at the Monterrey Technological University in Mexico. "But this time it is coming from civil society, which is organized and politically active in the democratic process."

Mr. LeoGrande posits that the campaign against corruption may also be a response to an actual rise in illegal enrichment by civilians. The privatization programs, whereby state-owned industries are sold for millions of dollars, present fresh opportunities for kickbacks. "When military regimes governed, there was corruption, but it was quieter, involving fewer people. Now we have lots of civilians in power who, for the first time, have the opportunity to feed at the public trough," LeoGrande says.

Boeker argues the anticorruption efforts are spurred by declining public tolerance for government abuses in Latin America. "People see there are institutions of redress available to them now. They no longer have to put up with corruption," he says. Politicians in the region have been slow to recognize the change in public attitude, adds Boeker. "Some political leaders are acting as if the old rules still applied and they're getting burned. [Brazilian President] Collor is a prime example of the arrogance of ignoring rules of ethics. He imagined that if he got away with it at state level he could at the presidential level as well."

Some analysts see the anticorruption revolt as a reaction to the neoliberal, market-oriented economic policies. The austerity measures adopted by regional governments tend to pinch most the pockets of the lower and middle classes. These citizens (or the opposition parties) clamor for justice when they have to swallow a 50-percent electricity hike while, in the case of Guatemala, the media reports Serrano is buying thoroughbred horses, ranches, a jet, and a new Mercedes-Benz with public funds. Popularity plays role

But Peter Hakim of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue argues the executive branch only becomes vulnerable to corruption charges when it has lost popularity for other reasons.

Venezuela's Perez had instituted tough austerity measures. He barely survived two coup attempts. His popularity was at a low point. Mr. Hakim argues the corruption charges - albeit on relatively weak legal grounds - were the last straw seized upon by the opposition. "Perez was so weak it was easy for the the legislature and judiciary to go after him," Hakim says.

By comparison, Hakim notes Argentina's President Carlos Saul Menem also enacted harsh economic reforms. But he has overcome corruption scandals - including a red Ferrari given by an Italian businessman seeking favors - because he is popular. "Corruption is rife in Argentina, but people are happy with their government," Hakim says.

Nonetheless, Hakim sees vague corruption charges emerging as a major tool of opposition parties. "The way they used to call people communists. Or it might be said someone is soft on drugs. Now you'll also hear, he's soft on corruption."

But some analysts warn the anticorruption weapon may also endanger nascent democracies if it is wielded too bluntly against the military.

"It's a delicate area," Boeker says. "As the drive to increase public-sector accountability gets around to the military, some presidents will be unprepared for the challenge. In many countries, the military has not yet reconciled itself to its new, lesser status [in the democratic system]. Frying generals will generate resentment," he predicts.

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