Central American leaders take aim at corruption

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Eight Central American countries sought this week to draw a line under the region’s reputation as being rife with graft by aiming for a “corruption free” business and political climate by 2010.

Analysts and campaigners welcomed the move, made at a global anti-corruption conference in Guatemala City, but said the new accord – the region’s most significant anti-corruption pledge in a decade – was only a small step in cleaning up the region’s image.

That image has taken an extra blow in recent years, with former presidents and senior politicians in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua being imprisoned or charged with corruption.

The presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize and Dominican Republic committed themselves to improving freedom of information laws, boosting transparency in public procurement via internet postings of tenders, and adopting tighter rules on political party financing.

Oscar Berger, Guatemala’s president, said elements of the accord would counter “protection rackets [by local politicians] that deprive poor people of basic services that are theirs by rights”.

He was speaking during the International Anti-Corruption Conference, a global four-day congress ending on Saturday drawing around a thousand delegates from governments, the United Nations and World Bank, and branches of Transparency International, the anti-graft watchdog.

Alejandro Salas of TI’s Latin American department said the 2010 was unrealistic but said the accord would “create credible benchmarks with which the public can measure progress”.

José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organisation of American States (OAS) told delegates that anti-corruption legislation in Latin America as a whole was very weak. “Ninety per cent of our member countries were recently told [by the OAS] that greater legal oversight of political party financing was necessary”.

Guillermo Zepeda, an investigator at Cidac, a Mexico-city based think-tank specialising in development issues said the accord was a sign of increased political will. “At least it shows that [the] presidents are looking at the issue and realise that it is important to put it high on their national and international agendas”.

Recent corruption scandals in Costa Rica, once considered the ‘cleanest’ country in the region, have underlined the seriousness of the problem. Three former presidents have since 2004 become entwined in scandals. For instance, Miguel Angel Rodríguez, who governed from 1998 to 2002, was forced to step down from the post of OAS secretary-general after he was accused on various charges of corruption linked to million-dollar “commissions” from the Alcatel, the French telecommunications company, from the Taiwanese government and from Instalaciones Inabensa, a Spanish company.

Yet analysts point to some signs of hope. For instance Guatemala in 2003 launched Guatecompras, an internet-based system of government purchases. The idea, which at the time was met with almost universal scepticism, was to inject transparency and efficiency into the process of government procurement, an area that had long been one of the main channels of corruption by public officials.

In February 2004, President Berger reached an agreement with all government ministers to make public purchases through Guatecompras obligatory. Since then, all information regarding government sales, purchases, budgets and hiring of services is available online. By July 2004 only 74 government agencies were using the system; by April 2005, that figure had risen to 305.

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