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Colombians marched in Bogota on April 1 against corruption, the FARC peace process and national politics in general. Fredy Builes/Reuters

Colombians are fed up with corruption, and everyone seems to be under investigation

Civil unrest seems to be the order of the day – and the coming weeks – in Latin America. The sprawling Odebrecht bribery scandal that started in Brazil is now complicating life in many neighbouring nations.

In Colombia, recent reports reveal that the Brazilian construction company has been bribing the country’s public officials since 2010. With the 2018 presidential campaign heating up, the revelation is spurring dissatisfaction with President Juan Manuel Santos and imperilling the country’s fledgling peace process.

On April 1, up to 16,000 Colombians took to the streets to decry corruption and express ongoing dissatisfaction with the peace accords signed with the FARC guerrillas. It was, in many ways, a march against the Colombian political establishment.

Public debate around the marches was largely redirected by mudslides in the city of Mocoa, the capital of the Putumayo province. They killed more than 300 citizens, including dozens of children, on the night of March 31.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos flying over the flood-hit areas of Putumayo province. Reuters

The tragedy gave Santos, who is now entering the last year of his administration, the opportunity to reassert his leadership. And it briefly relieved the pressures that the Odebrecht corruption scandal was exerting on his government.

Corruption takes centre stage

Colombia is not a regional outlier. Mass protests in 2016 famously contributed to the impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. And continuing public ire has helped spur the courts there to send numerous high-ranking government officials to jail for corruption. Argentina and Chile are also seeing citizens protest leaders from the political left, right and centre.

In many cases, public outcry is linked to the massive number of government officials found to be in the pocket of Odebrecht, whose bribery network reaches from Colombia and Peru to Angola and Mozambique.

But in Colombia, the company is only part of a more complicated story behind recent protests.

Public malfeasance has long been common in the country. The 1994 presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper, for example, was found to have been funded by the Cali Cartel, then one of Colombia’s most powerful trafficking organisations.

Even the main instigators of the April 1 march – former president Alvaro Uribe and former inspector general Alejandro Ordoñez – have themselves been found to be enmeshed in various corruption scandals. But that well-reported fact has not stopped them from actively mobilising public opinion against corruption within the current government.

President Santos faces an unusual and contradictory political reality. Internationally, he is well regarded as a Nobel Peace Prize winner lauded for his efforts to end Colombia’s armed conflict. But, at home, he is highly unpopular, with disapproval ratings of 71%.

This is due to an ironic twist of fate for the president. In signing the November 2016 peace accords with the FARC guerrillas, Santos took the formerly overwhelming question of armed conflict out of the spotlight and allowed corruption to take centre stage in the public mind.

Smear campaigns

Santos is a career politician, who served as minister of defence under his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, and is the grand nephew of a former president.

His detractors – led by Uribe, who is now among his most strident critics – are now using this experience to discredit him, calling him “immoral” and “corrupt”. As evidence for their claims, they cite a formal investigation by Colombia’s attorney general into whether the Odebrecht bribes played a role in Santos’ 2014 presidential campaign.

Presidents with irreconcilable differences. Reuters

The anti-Santos right-wing coalition includes the scandal-beset Ordoñez, as well as former minister of defence Marta Lucía Ramírez, and former vice president German Vargas Lleras. All of them fiercely opposed and nearly derailed the FARC accords in 2016. And all intend to run for the presidency in 2018.

This group does not have enough support to wield veto power in Congress. But by uniformly resisting any action undertaken by Santos and using smear campaigns to influence voter opinion, it has been successfully undermining the credibility of the current administration over the past two years.

The April 1 march is another tactic. In leveraging corruption concerns, the opposition seeks to position itself ahead of Santos’s party in next year’s presidential campaign.

Among other declared candidates, members of Uribe’s faction will go up against Humberto de la Calle. He is a prominent figure from the Santos camp and was the government’s lead negotiator in the FARC peace process. They will also stand against Bogota’s leftist former mayor, Gustavo Petro, whom Ordoñez removed for administrative malfeasance.

The favourability rating of most of these would-be presidents has been falling recently, showing a general loss of legitimacy for Colombian political parties and their representatives.

Institutions put to the test

In this twisted fashion, Brazil’s Odebrecht corruption scandal, which is clearly no longer just confined to that country, brings to the fore the paradox of Latin America’s burgeoning citizen engagement.

It is vital for democracy that people voice discontent with corruption, and Latin Americans’ increasing intolerance for the bribery, embezzlement and deal-making that has long characterised institutions on the continent is good.

Protesters in Peru march against the Odebrecht scandal, which has the political establishment reeling. Guadalupe Pardo/Reuters

In many countries, the Odebrecht backlash has proven dramatic, increasing ire toward governments already under considerable pressure for unpopular measures, such as Brazil’s budget cuts and Argentina’s teacher strikes.

In Colombia, it is putting institutions to the test and shaping presidential politics. Corruption can no longer be cloaked under the veil of national security interests and blamed on the existence of an armed group like the FARC. The absence of a war rhetoric within Colombia obliges the government to be more accountable to citizens. That too is healthy.

But when popular outrage is manipulated by political operators who seek to advance their interests, democracy suffers. As in Brazil (where the main driver of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Eduardo Cunha, has now been jailed for corruption), politicians in Colombia tainted by other scandals are using Odebrecht as a Trojan horse to position their own political agendas.

It is a risky tactic in a nation that is still relatively fragile. If Colombia’s institutions fail this challenge, the country could face a dramatic political transition, and a nation attempting to end war may find peace again endangered.

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