US HAS ZERO TOLERANCE                   

Rajika Jayatilake says US sanctions on the Paraguayan vice president is a stern warning to corrupt leaders

As many developing countries practically drown in corruption, the US is intent on curbing it. President Joe Biden has issued a Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a core United States national security interest, which expresses America’s position on global corruption.

It reads: “Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself. But by effectively preventing and countering corruption, and demonstrating the advantages of transparent and accountable governance, we can secure a critical advantage for the United States and other democracies.”

In the past four years, the people of Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Honduras, Colombia and most recently Brazil voted out corrupt governments. Next in line is Paraguay, which has the dubious distinction of being South America’s second most corrupt country. Venezuela is considered Latin America’s most corrupt country. While Paraguay’s next presidential election is due in April 2023, it is already under the spotlight with attempts at establishing good governance there.

There are two strategies to establish benchmarks for an honest government in Paraguay.

One is to build public expectation of accountability from the government rather than ignoring corruption and granting corrupt officials immunity from punishment for wrongdoing.

Founder of youth led anticorruption organisation reAcción Paraguay David Riveros García says: “Civil society must mobilise the grassroots so that citizens in general understand the importance and complete meaning of transparency.”

Consequently, corrupt officials will be held accountable for dishonesty, which will become a meaningful step in instilling integrity among them.

The second strategy focusses on top-down reform, which the White House is using as a testing ground for Biden’s policy.

On 22 July 2022, the US sanctioned former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes and his adult children for engaging in “significant corruption.”

In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted: “Former President Cartes obstructed a major international investigation into transnational crime in order to protect himself and his criminal associates from potential prosecution and political damage.”

The United States also accused Cartes of involvement with foreign terrorist organisations and other US designated entities.

Moreover, there’s been a wave of contract killings recently in Paraguay against professionals fighting narcotics trafficking. They include a mayor of a city bordering Brazil, a top anti-mafia prosecutor, a journalist investigating drug trafficking and the former boss of the country’s largest prison.

Commenting on the murder of prosecutor Marcelo Pecci, the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs avers: “Pecci’s work fighting organised crime stands as an example to us all – especially his efforts to bring to justice those who engaged in money laundering, drug trafficking and corruption.”

According to Paraguayan Opposition Leader Efraín Alegre, the murder investigation by Brazil accuses Cartes and calls him the “head of transnational organised crime in Paraguay.”

On 12 August last year, less than a month after sanctioning Cartes, the US took further action against Paraguay’s corrupt regime by imposing sanctions on Paraguayan Vice President Hugo Velázquez and close advisor Juan Carlos Duarte for engaging “in significant corruption” including bribing a public official and interfering in public processes.

Velázquez and Duarte, and their families, have been denied visas to travel to the US. The real power behind Paraguay’s government was Velázquez. He was also a serious presidential candidate for the April 2023 elections; but now, he has abandoned his run for the presidency following the sanctions.

He had revoked his earlier decision to resign from the vice presidency, saying that he wouldn’t give up his post until the US gave details of corruption claims against him.

Political analyst and former Paraguayan politician Sebastián Acha says that US sanctions against these individuals only confirmed what many Paraguayans had suspected for a long time.

Nevertheless, a combination of sanctions, recent corruption charges against people in authority and the killing of Pecci have taken a toll on Paraguayan public trust in the country’s democratic institutions.

Acha adds: “What it clearly tells us and what we need to take very seriously is that the justice system is infiltrated by corruption at the very highest levels.”

The US has used sanctions to punish corruption, other former leaders of corrupt regimes and many lower-ranking officials. In February 2022, the US State Department sanctioned former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for engaging “in significant corruption by committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco trafficking, and using the proceeds of illicit activity to facilitate political campaigns.”

In the case of Velázquez however, the US has sanctioned the sitting vice president of a friend­ly country, which is an extraordinary move. The United States is sending a clear message to Paraguay’s leaders and other corrupt regimes in the world that Washington is not tolerating corruption any more.

Biden once said: “Fighting corruption is not just good governance – it’s self-defence. It’s patriotism.”