A new survey on corruption around the world confirms what many of us have long suspected: Fiery populist leaders who rise to power vowing to eradicate corruption often end up leading sleazier governments than their predecessors.
If you look at the 2009 Corruption Perception Index released by Transparency International, a Germany-based non-government group that is considered to be the world's most influential corruption watchdog, Latin America is a case in point.
The ranking, based on more than a half-dozen separate polls, lists 180 countries around the world. They go from the ones perceived to be the most honest (New Zealand and Denmark) to the ones seen as most corrupt (Afghanistan and Somalia).
In Latin America, excluding Caribbean countries, the regional champions of corruption are -- in order -- Venezuela, Paraguay, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia and Argentina, the survey said. Ironically, most of these countries' presidents have won elections presenting themselves as anti-corruption crusaders.
In Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 to a big extent thanks to his promises to crack down on what he accurately described as a corrupt political class, corruption has worsened since.
When Transparency began to do its Corruption Perception Index in 2001, Venezuela ranked 69th in a list of 91 countries -- or at the bottom 25th percentile of the world's most corrupt countries.
In 2009, Venezuela ranked 162 in the list of 180 countries, or in the 10th percentile of the world's most corrupt.
Is there a relation between populism and corruption, I asked Alejandro Salas, head of Transparency's Americas department? I noted that virtually all of Latin America's most corruption-ridden countries are led -- or were led until recently -- by populist leaders.
"You could say so," Salas said. "There is a direct relation between populism and institutional weakness. And institutional weakness leads to corruption."
Salas told me that when he looks at this year's index, he sees three groups of countries in Latin America.
"The first group is that of the countries that are best rated, which are Chile, Uruguay, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica," he said.
"They are widely perceived as the less corrupt, and they tend to have stability, free and regular elections and, in most cases, independent judiciaries and other effective systems of checks and balances.
"The second group is that of countries that are in the middle of the list, such as Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Peru," he continued. "They are countries with contradicting trends: They have some modern institutions, but also some remnants of ancient practices that breed corruption.
"The third group is made up of the countries with the lowest ratings, which in recent years have suffered a kind of 'state capture' by their charismatic leaders," Salas said.
He added, "In countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, government leaders have shattered the system of checks and balances. And when there are no watchdogs, you tend to have more arbitrary allocations of funds, and fewer transparent bids for government contracts."
What about the United States? I asked Salas. The United States shows up in the ranking as the second most honest country in the Americas, after Canada.
Salas said that the good U.S. standing in the survey may be due to the fact that the polls asked about government -- not private -- corruption.
In addition, survey respondents may have felt that the U.S. government responded rapidly and strongly to financial scandals.
My opinion: I would not be surprised if in coming years, as we find out more about the Bush administrations scandalously lax regulatory practices that helped cause the current recession, the United States will fall a few notches in the corruption perception index. It should.
But I'm not surprised by the fact that Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other countries led by authoritarian populist leaders lead the region's corruption ranking.
They are the same leaders who have tried to co-opt all branches of government, and who are now trying to curb the media.
The more they succeed in grabbing absolute powers, the more corrupt -- and closer to world corruption champion Somalia -- their countries will be.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.