There are lessons to be learnt from the conviction on corruption charges and subsequent ten-year prison sentence dealt out to the once darling of Brazilian politics, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The champion of the poor, along with his wife, had been accused of receiving bribes from a construction company in exchange for facilitating the company’s acquisition of lucrative government contracts.
Lula, as he is affectionately known, is not the first political leader to be caught with his hands in the proverbial cookie jar, nor will he be the last. In over 40 states in America more than a 1 000 state senators and other political figures have had to resign, or have been fined or imprisoned for acts of corruption over the past 20 years.
In India, the lower house of parliament had 545 elected lawmakers up to six years ago and by 2011 30 per cent of that number had criminal cases pending against them.
In 2011, Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison after being convicted of corruption. Again, in the United States of America, Judge Thomas Maloney epitomized corruption in Cook County, Illinois, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s until he was finally brought to justice.
The stories of corrupt public officials are repeated worldwide and we are made aware of them because in many instances they are brought to justice. While we shudder at the damage done to public confidence in those countries, we garner some degree of comfort and renewed trust in political and judicial systems when we observe action being taken to deal with this cancer.
Barbados is not insulated from corruption. There is corruption at several layers in this country. It has always been so; it probably will remain so. Such is the nature of man. But unlike the stories emanating from North, South and Latin America, Britain and the rest of Europe, Africa, Australasia and elsewhere where corruption is punished when discovered, Barbadian slaves to subterfuge run the full gamut of their chicanery with little or no worry of prosecution, even when discovered.
Annually, we read or listen to the reports of shenanigans in the public sector which are exposed in the Auditor General’s Report. We get specific information on misdeeds in certain Government departments, we are told by the Auditor General that some of these misdeeds are tantamount to criminal activity, in a few instances some of these matters are referred to the Royal Barbados Police Force for investigation and action to be taken. And what happens? Nothing! No prosecutions! No dressing down! No dismissals! The deeds fade from memory and we continue our lives, willing amnesiacs once the corruption does not directly affect us.
Former Chief Justice of Barbados Sir David Simmons said last August that it was time that Barbadians admitted there was rampant corruption in the island. This admission, he argued, was the first step towards dealing with the problem. The eminent jurist noted: “I have been walking around telling the country that for years, but we have been denying it. I think there is a lot of evidence but it seems to be more than a perception of corruption at all kinds of level in this society.” He added that Barbadians had swept the scourge under the carpet for much too long and that the problem was worsening in both Government and the private sector.
“More and more we are having evidence that there is probably a genuine increase in the incidence of corrupt practices both at the private sector and the public sector levels,” Sir David stressed.
He added: “You are either corrupt or you are not corrupt. You are either corruptible or you are not. If it is known that somebody would take a couple of dollars to do a favour which as a public person, they ought to do as a matter of routine, as a necessary part of your functioning, then people would prey on that weakness.”
The recurring fact throughout the world is that where there are people, there will be corruption. But what is perhaps worse than corruption is a society’s unwillingness to wrestle with it and punish it. This is the best that can be done since it will not be eradicated.
Lula entered the Brazilian political psyche as a man who offered his country hope, especially the poor. He promised to fight corruption and to bring transparency and accountability to government. Familiar political rhetoric! But today he faces ten years in jail because the systems in place to deal with corruption work, irrespective of the perpetrator’s social standing.
And what are we doing in Barbados? We diagnose the cancer, then bury our heads in the sand, turn a blind eye, pretend it isn’t possible, suffer memory loss, and go about our daily chores in ignorant bliss because, after all, this is paradise.