Marcelo Odebrecht is the man of the year in Latin America. This Brazilian engineer, born in 1968, the grandson of the founder of a huge business conglomerate, is the world’s prince of bribery. To evade a 19-year prison sentence, something he managed only a few days ago, he has ratted on his cronies in his capacity as “effective collaborator with justice,” destabilizing many of our countries and exposing (much to his regret) the greed and cynicism of numerous politicians and functionaries.
The Odebrecht Organization was an enormous civil-engineering enterprise with almost 200,000 workers and billings of more than $40 billion, of which he has already lost one third. He operated in about 20 countries, some of them with a GNP smaller than the company’s revenues, but most of his operation and subornation was carried out in Brazil.
In all, Marcelo handed out about $1 billion. In absolute terms, the most corrupt country –other than Brazil — was Venezuela ($98 million), something totally predictable because its government is a kind of filthy toilet, but the Latin American countries that received the most bribes per capita were Panama ($59 million) and the Dominican Republic ($92 million).
The modus operandi was simple. Odebrecht’s men detected a candidate with possibilities and began to negotiate. They could make him president and later rich. Brazil had great advertising men and outstanding campaign teams. That marvelous expertise was made available to the chosen candidate, along with sizable amounts to underwrite the cost of the operation.
All the candidate had to do, once elected, was to approve the inflated budgets and turn over to Odebrecht the execution of the planned public works. That enormous amount was paid by the people’s taxes or by loans that would eventually have to be faced.
As for Odebrecht’s Brazilians, they built the highways, tunnels or whatever and punctually make the payments — as agreed — in Switzerland, Andorra or some other fiscal paradise, organizing in great detail the logistics of corruption. They kept their word. Their plan was not to deceive the politicians or rip off the thieves but to facilitate the famous secret motto “steal but perform” while increasing their billings year after year.
One could trust the promises of Mafiosi who wore silk ties and $5,000 suits. They lacked ideological color. Without the least scruples they struck deals with the Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro or the Ecuadoran Jorge Glas, Rafael Correa’s V.P., apostles of 21st-Century Socialism and natural enemies of private market economy, of which the Odebrecht Organization was the quintessence.
The problem, naturally, is not Odebrecht but the mentality that rules Latin America. In a more modest scale, it’s been through bribes, small or large, that most of our governments have worked since time immemorial. With a terrible aggravation: our societies don’t mind. In most surveys, corruption appears at the end of the list of ills that must be eradicated. In Mexico, many seriously state that “corruption is just another way to distribute revenue.”
Why this lack of principles in our petty little world?
Maybe because most Ibero-Americans — I include the Brazilians — don’t see clearly that public funds come from all of us and corruption is like someone slipping his hand into our pocket and stealing our wallet. What happens in the circles of State is none of our business.
Maybe because cynicism is total and we take for granted that the government is going to rob, and this doesn’t bother us, so long as it’s “our folks” who enrich themselves with other people’s resources. We are the victims of a clear moral anomaly.
Undoubtedly because patronage, that small bribe granted by the government, is a form of corruption in which millions of Ibero-Americans are trained for that other type of noxious behavior.
That’s why, despite Lava Jato [Car Wash], as the judicial action against corruption was called in Brazil, Brazilians could again elect Lula da Silva, who today tops the surveys despite his dirty dealings. Years ago, Peronists in neighboring Argentina expressed it in a graffito that time has not erased and reveals the basic drama: “Whore or thief though he might be, it’s Perón for me.”