Corruption in Politics: Chile’s Gordian Knot

Las protestas estudiantiles han puesto de relieve la crisis generada por la corrupción en Chile (El Arsenal)
Student protests have thrown the crisis generated by corruption in Chile into sharp relief. (El Arsenal)

EspañolIn a bizarre turn of events, Chile’s political class are united as never before in trying to discredit the idea of a growing institutional crisis in the country. It’s a tough job, given how multiple scandals have revealed Chilean politics to be plagued with endemic corruption. In unison, they’re seeking to soften the impact and minimize the gravity of the situation, and it’s not surprising.

One the one hand, politicos of all stripes have taken part in these nefarious practices, linked by both legal and moral wrongdoing. On the other, the image of Chile’s institutional stability, which has long been the country’s stamp of quality, both for the political system and the economy, is rapidly unraveling.

With regard to minimal corruption levels and the perception of stability, Chile — at least up until now — is a paragon of the region, and is among the top OECD nations on such metrics. The loss of this trademark trustworthiness could bring grave domestic and international consequences in its wake.

Current events expose multiple Gordian knots in Chile’s institutional tapestry. While parallels with the rupture of 1973 are somewhat exaggerated, Chile is increasingly manifesting systemic flaws, which go beyond one or two bad practices or individuals, as was originally hoped by many.

The PentaCaval, and SQM scandals transcend the elite itself, instead bringing down the entire political-business class and the very structure of power with them.

The interminable eruption of scandals, the multitude of those implicated, the torrents of private resources funneled towards the country’s politicians, the longevity of poor practices and inefficiency in public administration, all conspire to suggest that Chile is indeed on the brink of a crisis in governance.

After outgoing comptroller general of the republic, Ramiro Mendoza, used his last public report to issue the phrase “corruption has arrived in Chile,” politicians railed against him with disgust, because he’d uttered the unspeakable. Elected officials have been so careful and conceptually creative in speaking of “involuntary errors,” rather than deliberate corrupt practices, that they were scared out of their skins by the c-word.

But it turns out that it’s not that corruption has just arrived, rather that it simply manifested itself with an explosive force that still surprises. Corruption became rooted in Chile and has been growing for a long time: in the form of poor practices, procedural shortcuts, bad habits, legal grey areas, the selective blindness of officials, and limitless informal arrangements.

Another of the prohibited and censored words is “nepotism.” The word — as old as politics itself — comes from the Greek Nepos, meaning “nephew.” It’s significance, of course, doesn’t only extend to nephews.

As Fernando Villegas explains in relation to the present cases in Chile, “we’re talking about the heads of the government, about the massive iniquity of privileging all their familial tribe, sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, wives, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, parents, grandchildren, etc., with posts within the state, including within the Moneda [presidential] palace.”

If we look closely enough, we can see that it’s not only the son and daughter-in-law of president Bachelet caught up in the Caval corruption case, but that there are multiple family trees whose roots and branches extend throughout national politics.

While it’s certain that no democratic system can entirely exclude the phenomena in question, if it’s vigorous enough and its institutions are healthy, their efficient detection, identification, punishment, and elimination should be immediate. If institutions function well, the Gordian knots don’t form in the first place, as there are always swords to slice through them in time.

Villegas is a pessimist, and in a mournful tone he warns that Chileans may “have to reconcile ourselves to the idea of the imminent birth of a brand-new Bolivarian Republic on a bleaker and more hypocritical scale.” I hope you’re wrong, Fernando! But meanwhile, this much we know: corruption and nepotism are widespread in Chile, and its institutions are not working well.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time