North Korea conducted its sixth, and most powerful, nuclear test last month.
Another day, another sorry saga of corruption in Latin America: the big man using state funds for personal gain. Whether it’s having his brothers, sons and nephews on the payroll, false accounting, skimming workers’ wages or ordering white-elephant projects that are never finished, they are all served up with threats and brutality against detractors or whistle-blowers.
Eventually the big man is investigated, condemned and jailed. But then set free by high-level political contacts. Sound familiar?
Of course it does, though you might be surprised to learn that this story goes back to the discoverer of Spain’s Nuevo Mundo, Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón. As the colonies’ first governor, El Almirante had his devout followers who would follow him literally to the ends of the known earth. But an equal number despised him as a corrupt despot prepared to torture or kill anyone in his way.
By 1500, the Spanish Crown had heard enough allegations and despatched investigators. The ensuing report – lost then found in a state archive in Valladolid in 2006 – underscores the perils of sending underfunded and unsupervised conquistadors to far-flung places with strict orders to send a tax surplus back to Cadiz’s coffers.
Life on the frontier “turned noblemen… into rascals and thieves”, to quote James Michener’s Caribbean. Still, the fact that King Ferdinand bothered to send investigators to Hispaniola at all shows that anti-corruption was on his royal ‘To Do’ list. It also explains why Colón was shipped home to Spain in chains, though (mirroring the fate of future transgressors) he was quickly pardoned by the King and sent back to work.
Colón never made it to Colombia but his legacy of mixing personal self-interest with public office certainly did, along with Spain’s decree-based legal system and a centralised bureaucracy that created the need to bend rules just to get things done.
The result is the seemingly never-ending parade of corruption scandals and the ever-increasing incredulity of an exasperated population, so fed up with their ruling class that pollsters no longer talk of popular politicians but rather the ‘least hated’.
The gist of the discourse is, “Now we’ve made peace with the FARC let’s go after corruption.” My friend goes further. In his mind, decades of conflict were cooked up by a pilfering elite to draw attention away from their own crooked ways. As he puts it, “A smoke screen while they picked our pockets.” The guerrillas were the “useful idiots along for the ride,” he concludes.
Such cynicism is natural when even the government-appointed anti-corruption chief – a lawyer called Luis Moreno – is currently in jail for soliciting bribes from the very politicos he was supposed to investigate.
A more optimistic view is that this avalanche of scandals demonstrates that corruption is actually being uncovered, just as the Santos government promised back when it took power in 2010.
Most people don’t see it that way. Perhaps this is because of the way corruption is measured. Much fraud is hidden, almost by definition. That means a lot is based on the perception of wrong-doing, which in turn depends on media reporting. The more you read about it, the worse it looks. Thus paradoxically, a government taking aim at corruption will actually appear more corrupt.
Another reality of Colombia is that corruption is everywhere. The bite (la mordida) comes in many small ways, from the crooked cop demanding an ‘instant fine’, to the stonewalling bureaucrats in local offices who need an incentive to get the job done, to the price-fixing business cartels that push up prices in the supermarket.
For years I was stumped as to why school exercise books (cuadernos) were twice as expensive in Bogotá as London until, lo and behold, the cartel de los cuadernos – a price-fixing regime rigidly enforced by the country’s three main suppliers – was unmasked by government investigators. Well, at least it was eventually unmasked (though I didn’t notice any major price drop in cuadernos).
The job market seems equally controlled. When I suggested to an out-of-work teacher friend that he submit his CV to the nearby high school he replied dolefully: “How can I apply when I don’t know anyone there?” His chances of getting a job without some friend on the inside were so astronomically small he wouldn’t even try.
This touches on the perception that without palanca (leverage) nothing gets done, and if you don’t have well-placed friends or family, you might just have to pay a bribe. And if you want to do business you have to bend the rules even when (especially when) dealing with the state. A friend who owns a paint shop told me how the local army unit offered her a large order to repaint the barracks but that “all the receipts had to be 10% over so the officers get their cut.”
Of course Colombians cannot turn to their political leaders for moral guidance since the country’s ruling clans are kings of the kickback. The paint shop scenario plays out at all levels, indeed the very political system in Colombia seems set up for skimming, through public contract systems that allow elected officials to take their slice of the pie.
There are various mechanisms behind this such as, the infamous merry-go-round (carrusel de contratos), whereby construction funds are passed down through a series of bogus consultancies, each taking their 10% cut, to eventually reach a bloke with a shovel and a wheelbarrow who actually does the work. Or not. Usually by this stage there is not enough cash left, creating a half-finished white elephant, unless the state coughs up more money and the carousel starts again.
But even if the work does get finished, there is a high chance it had been over-costed with a big boost to the personal coffers of elected mayors, senators and congressmen factored in. Step forward Odebrecht, the Brazilian conglomerate charged by US courts with the systematic bribing of governments on a global basis and the plat de jour in terms of current Colombian scandals.
And what a juicy feast. By the latest count, USD$27 million has been paid in bribes to politicians and administrators to serve up contracts for Colombia’s prestigious Ruta de Sol road network. The unravelling web has entangled ministers from all political hues and tainted President Santos, who even made a personal presentation at an anti-corruption conference in London last year.
It is worth considering what actually constitutes corruption. Santos has defended the system of political patronage (perfected under his watch) whereby regional chiefs vie among themselves to gain state funds for their locality. “Who better to decide what public work needs to be done in their own backyards than the local elected officials themselves?” he argues, pointing out that countries like the US and UK operate in a similar way.
This means that senators and congressmen are able to use blackmail to get funds, demanding the allocation of projects to their region in return for supporting reforms that the government needs to keep working, a realpolitik which might pass in countries where public works actually get done.
In Colombia, where work frequently doesn’t get done – and there is even now an elefante blanco cell-phone app for citizens to photograph and report unfinished structures – most people see a system that simply allows politicians to buy votes, steal money and stay in power.
So why do people vote for los corruptos? The answer is simply that la mermelada (the jam) is spread thinly, benefiting many families and voters. Mayors, congressmen and senators repay voter loyalty with contracts or jobs which they control by placing ‘their people’ – often relatives or in-laws or clan – in key admin posts, usually including the oversight jobs that should be checking for fraud.
Since most public service staff are on temporary contracts, their employment (and their pension, their health scheme and all the other benefits) depends entirely on the election of ‘their person’ to ensure they keep their jobs. This leads to the remarkable situation after each local election whereby in any given local municipality whole chunks of staff will depart, seemingly overnight (sometimes acrimoniously wiping their computer files), while new faces (with connections to the new mayor) roll in.
Of course this new bunch are initially inept so any useful work is put on hold for the next six months as they find their feet, including ways to skim as much as they can, knowing in five years the axe will again fall – this time on them.
Will these cycles of nepotism and corruption ever end? Experts say that sufficient laws exist in Colombia to stop corruption but are not implemented. Local government could reduce nepotism on the municipal payroll by moving public workers from temporary to permanent contracts. But no-one does.
Recent laws on transparent bidding should have eliminated bent contracts. Unfortunately, powerful contractors bypass this by dictating the terms of the proposal – often in cahoots with the mayor’s office – to ensure only their bid can win. This could be countered with more technical expertise in the preparation of proposals, since vague and poorly-costed plans foment graft. Others see education as the key, such as including ethics modules in university business courses.
Still others believe that the initiatives to streamline daily bureaucracy – such as anti-tramite laws and putting common processes on-line – are reducing both the need and the opportunities to seek or offer bribes.
A good example I came across recently was the Land Registry office where the front desk workers can no longer calculate tax receipts for property sales. Instead, backroom staff – too far away to be slipped some cash to lower your bill – do the maths and send the result to the front desk.
It’s a small change, but it’s a start.
Measuring transparency and corruption in Colombia
Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) reflects a sample of experts’ perceptions of corruption across the world. That is not the same as actual corruption, of course, but corruption by its very nature is extremely difficult to measure. According to the 2016 CPI report, Colombia ranked 90th, halfway down the list of 176 countries. Regionally it sits at the halfway mark between cleanest Canada and most corrupt Venezuela.
Transparencia por Colombia is Transparency International’s country specific chapter with links to an interactive map that pin-points specific cases and ITEP, a public services transparency index that uses surveys to rank corruption risks both by territory and by entity.
The ranking reflects the main concern of many Colombians that the very entities tasked with uprooting and punishing corruption – the Fiscalia and the Ministerio de Justicia – are themselves at high risk of corruption. Unsurprisingly, the most at-risk departments – Chocó and La Guajira – are also Colombia’s most impoverished.
According to figures from Colombia’s own Inspector General’s Office, corruption costs the country USD$7.5 billion every year, which adds up to nearly 10% of the government’s 2017 budget. This means corruption costs each taxpayer USD$165 a year – three quarters of a monthly minimum wage.
Some other organisations and government bodies that highlight corruption in Colombia:
La Comisión Nacional Ciudadana para la Lucha Contra la Corrupción (CNCLC), a government-appointed citizens body that oversees implementation of anti-corruption laws, www.ciudadanoscontralacorrupcion.org.
The government’s Secretaria de Transparencia, tasked with implementing anti-corruption laws, www.secretariatransparencia.gov.co, here you can download the Elefantes Blancos app where citizens can report unfinished public works to social media.
Another state department dedicated to ‘measure and analyse’ corruption is El Observatorio de Transparencia y Anticorrupción, www.anticorrupcion.gov.co, where you can find on-line resources to fight corruption.
Online news and analysis sites like www.lasillavacia.com and www.las2orillas.com offer insights sometimes missed by the mainstream media.
The blog of Bogotá economist Alvaro Pachón, www.alvaropachon.blogspot.com.co has analysis of the personal tax returns of senior government ministers made public in 2016 after pressure from transparency groups.
Spreading the jam
Some of Colombia’s corruption scandals
Odebrecht – a whiff of corruption turned into a proper stench after the Brazilian giant was caught bribing officials and fixers to the tune of USD$27 million to win road contracts, notably the Ruta de Sol highway from Bogotá to Santa Marta.
Reficar – the modernisation of Cartagena’s oil refinery came in USD$4 billion over budget after using contractors who, strangely, had no experience in oil refineries but plenty in the bedroom: this splurge came with a USD$16 million tab for the services of sex workers.
Roads for prosperity – the presidential plan to improve rural roads did bring prosperity to political caciques on the Caribbean coast with large helpings of la mermelada. La Silla Vacia revealed that all the contracts – no matter where or how long the road – came in at the same cost. Here too we learned how regional senators demanded slush funds from central government in return for support for reforms. Call it traffic jam for votes.
If the price is wrong… then there is a cartel at work, as in the recent price-fixing revelations of nappies / toilet-paper / fruit / onions / potatoes / school books (you can insert just about any commodity into this list). Remember it’s the free market (free to screw us as they please).
The Community of the Ring – a plot as murky as Mordor and as corrupt as Colombian cops created a male prostitution ring, complete with ‘male-order’ catalogue, using young cadets to ensnare and coerce politicians. This led to allegations of murder, kidnapping and the downfall of a police chief.
Judge dismissed – A senior judge and president of Colombia’s constitutional court, Jorge Pretelt, met with an oil company director to demand a fat bribe as pay-off to overturn a USD$9 million dollar fine for flouting environmental laws.
The great Córdoba robbery – Córdoba, Colombia’s cowboy corner, is also its most corrupt with dozens of functionaries, lawyers, judges and senators in jail or being processed for systematic looting of departmental coffers. One example is that of youthful ex-governor Alejandro Lyons, who faced fraud charges but made a dash for the USA to cut a deal and dish the dirt on the dynasty families still reigning here.
Corrupt anti-corruption case – the first person outed by Lyons was the country’s senior corruption investigator, Luis Moreno, now in jail facing corruption charges of his own. The fugitive ex-governor claims that Moreno took bribes not to investigate him for corruption.
Cartel of the haemophiliacs – the stateside Lyons might also shed light on Córdoba’s fraudulent list of falsified haemophiliacs through which various senior officials bled the health system for USD$20 million.
-Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
Today most governments are increasingly intolerant of the public criticism of their misgovernance and corruption. The critics are attacked – India claiming to be the largest secular democracy in the world suffers badly on that count.
Many critics face notorious seduction charges and are in jail because of their conviction to defend what they believe in. The situation has reached such a level of fear in the minds of people that they are scared of telling anything considered to be the truth in a nation where its founding father Mahatma Gandhi taught the values of truth.
In India sedition is being used as state terror techniques to instill a fear and stop the critics form speaking the truth. Those who speak the truth are either killed or taken to jail. Many critics of Hindutva ideology have been murdered in Karnataka, and elsewhere and those who sell beef or eat it are beaten to death.
This vulture phenomenon is the new Indian culture of intolerance. Ever since the BJP came to power under RSS leader N. Modi, the insanity of intolerance has grown multifaceted. While the government promotes ‘Ghar Wapsi’ to convert Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Jains and Christians into Hinduism/Hindutva, Muslims cannot propagate for their faith or convert Hindus to Islam even if the Hindus persist for joining the Islamic community. Cases are filed if a Hindu becomes part of Muslim community.
So much of hatred is being pumped into the national consciousness by the regime agencies.
At long last, the Supreme Court of India has come out to clear the mess due to sedition threat through a historic verdict.
Indian courts are dumped with false sedition cases.
The Supreme Court on October 08 said that all authorities across the country would be bound by the Kedar Nath judgment of the apex court, which limits the scope of filing sedition cases under the provisions of Indian Penal Code. A bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Uday Lalit gave the direction after Prashant Bhushan appeared on behalf of the petitioners –NGO Common Cause and S. P. Udayakumar (an anti-nuclear activist in Kudankulam Tamil Nadu, against whom sedition charges have been made and arrested on several occasions) – and said that there had been an increase in the number of sedition cases being filed.
Eminent lawyer Bhushan argued before the bench that the law of sedition is grossly misused, misapplied and abused by the authorities and that the authorities are not following the judgment in Kedar Nath which states that Section 124A (sedition) is only applicable where there is violence or incitement to violence in the alleged act of sedition.
Taking note of this submission, the bench in a brief order, said “we are of the considered opinion that the authorities while dealing with the offenses under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar case. Except saying so, we do not intend to deal with any other issue as we are of the considered opinion that it is not necessary to do so. The writ petition is accordingly disposed of.”
The petitioners were concerned at the increasing number of ‘sedition’ cases being filed across the country, the latest being the slapping of a charge against Amnesty International India for organizing a debate on Kashmir and against Kannada actor-turned-politician, Ramya for her ‘Pakistan is not hell remark,’ and challenged this provision in the Indian Penal Code. They said there had been an increase in the number of cases of sedition against intellectuals, activists, and students.
The petition was for the Supreme Court to address the misuse and misapplication of IPC Section 124A (sedition law) by the Centre and various state governments, which has led to the routine persecution of students, journalists, and intellectuals engaged in social activism. It submitted that these charges are framed to instill a fear and to scuttle dissent and are in complete violation of the scope of sedition law as laid down by constitution bench judgment of Supreme Court in Kedar Nath.
In the petition, a prayer was made for the issuance of an appropriate writ, order or direction making it compulsory for the concerned authority to produce a reasoned order from the director general of police or the commissioner of police, as the case may be, certifying that the “seditious act” would either lead to the incitement of violence or had the tendency or the intention to create public disorder – before a FIR is filed or an arrest is made on the charges of sedition against any individual.
In the various cases that have been filed in recent years, the charges of sedition against the accused have failed to stand up to judicial scrutiny. The petitioner, therefore, sought strict compliance with the constitution bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath in which the scope of sedition as a penal offence was laid down, and it was held that the gist of the offence of sedition is “incitement to violence” or the “tendency or the intention to create public disorder”. It was submitted that those actions, which do not involve violence or the tendency to create public disorder – such as the organization of debates/discussions, drawing of cartoons and criticism of the government – do not constitute sedition.
Section 124A of the IPC states “whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added or with imprisonment which may extend to three years.”
The petitioners regretted that more than 50 years since the Kedar Nath judgment, Section 124A of the IPC was being allowed to be used irrespective of whether the alleged act or words are, in fact, seditious acts, or constituting a “tendency to cause public disorder or incitement to violence.”
In carrying out arrests and slapping charges, the police and the governments have rarely, if ever, respected this restriction. Successive governments have blatantly used Section 124A to stifle the voice of dissent and to further their political goals. Quoting statistics, they said, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report of 2014, as many as 47 sedition cases were reported across nine Indian states in 2014 alone. Many of these cases did not involve violence or incitement to violence, which is a pre-requisite for a sedition charge. It was submitted that as per NCRB figures, a total of 58 people were arrested in connection with these cases, but the government managed only one conviction.
It said that in 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which sets forth internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition law under Section 124A and the arbitrary slapping of charges continue to restrict speech in ways that are inconsistent with the ICCPR. In the Kedar Nath judgment, the apex court unequivocally narrowed the scope of Section 124A, but it continues to be misused, thereby making it imperative for this court to issue necessary directions and guidelines to uphold its decision in Kedar Nath which is also compatible with India’s international obligations.
The petitioner acknowledges that words which directly provoke violence, or which directly threaten the maintenance of public order, may deserve censure. However, that is not what the misapplication of sedition law seeks to achieve. The present practice of misapplication of sedition law violates the Kedar Nath judgment. It further aims to crush all opposition to the ruling political party. The regular use of the law continues to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression in the country. It was submitted that though a small number of sedition cases lead to actual conviction; it causes harassment of individuals till the time judgment comes, which in various cases takes several years.
Meanwhile, individuals charged with sedition have to live without their passport, are barred from government jobs and must produce themselves in court at all times as and when required. A person who is charged also has to spend money on legal fees. The charges have rarely stuck in most of the cases, but the process itself becomes the punishment. The petitioners prayed for a review of all pending sedition cases and for criminal complaints about sedition made before a judicial magistrate to curb the misuse and misapplication of the sedition law.
Indian government and core media, especially the TV channels always make it a point to threaten those who speak against the policies of the Indian government, particularly on foreign policy matters and Indian attitude towards Kashmiris, with sedition charges.
The historical judgment of the Apex Court on the subject has made it amply clear about the rights of Indian citizens to be watchful the government actions and criticize the actions if they are not found correct.
People have the right to question the policies and principles of the Indian government, elected by the people who offer the mandate to rule the nation on their behalf for a term as such the government should enact laws to strengthen the democratic and secular fabric of India and not to try to curtail the freedoms of speech.
Many Indian human rights people have been warned against opposing the militarization of Kashmir and genocides of Kashmir Muslims in Jammu Kashmir and threatened in the open in debates with seditions charges and such threats meant to bully and silence the critics of state terrorism. Even Hindus are scared of taking about Indo-Pakistan relations in a positive sense for that reason. TV channels a parade the anti-Islamic, anti-Muslims, and anti-Kashmir, anti-Pakistan guys to jointly attack all of them and make Hindus happy.
Ultra fanaticism belongs exclusively to Israel and India. Their strategic boss the USA is slightly better.
Dr. Zakir Hussein – a known Islamic scholar who propagates his vision of Islam is now in jail on “serious” sedition charges. One is not sure if he would be killed in jail in some fake encounter for his firm Islamic faith in Hindutva India. Hopefully, he would be released soon after the judgment.
Given the breathtaking judgment of the Supreme Court on sedition, the federal and state governments should initiate actions if anybody either in the government or media or anybody else MP or MLA, threatens the critics with sedition charges.
India should have zero tolerance to violations of basic human rights.
The Hindutva forces should stop injecting venom into the national consciousness by spreading false propaganda just for votes in the forthcoming polls.
Polls come and go, but the unity of India and accommodation of thoughts of minorities should be taken care of by the state.
If the Hindutva forces continue to create divisions in India along communal lines, it is better if the Supreme Court, if it cannot streamline Indian politics making it non-communal as India is a great nation of several religions, languages, and nationalities and cultures, could consider canceling elections for the next 10 years and ban hate communal speeches from the public platforms and in meetings.
Communal hate politics, just like fake entertainers enjoying Padma awards – meant for sincere people of meritorious, selfless services to the nation, as their birthright, has ruined Indian prestige greatly.
Majority fanaticism is ill-conceived by the regime, but the phenomenon is looked down upon by the world community.
Ilayathalapathy Vijay’s’s much-awaited film Mersal hits the screens today. Vijay will be playing a triple role in Mersal, which is said to deal with corruption in India’s medical industry. According to reports, he plays a doctor, magician and a village leader. Mersal has faced several issues on its way to the big screen: a title row, a petition against excessive pricing, a strike and confusion about the censor certificate. But now the makers and Vijay’s fans can heave a sigh of relief as the issues have been resolved. After no new releases in Tamil Nadu theaters for the last two weeks, Mersal’s release is excepted to revive the Kollywood box office as there are no other big releases on Diwali.
Follow all the live updates and reactions on the release of Vijay’s Mersal here:
11:25 am: Popular Kollywood PRO Nikkil tweeted, “#Mersal is a complete pack of Amazing Screenplay, Excellent Visuals, Superb Stunts, Social issue. @actorvijay @Atlee_dir Combo Done it Again.”
10:50 am: Other Kollywood releases like Meyaadha Maan and Chennaiyil Oru Naal 2 struggle to find screens in the wake of Mersal’s release.
10:25 am: Fans are thronging theaters to watch Vijay’s latest release:
— Joseph Prabhu (@prabhujbps) October 17, 2017
9:50 am: Mersal will be showcased in 123 screens in Malaysia.
9:30 am: Kollywood stars are excited about the release of Mersal:
— MAHENDRAN (@Actor_Mahendran) October 18, 2017
Thalapathy on fire. Such dedication & hard work! #Mersal – Title says it all!
— Karthick Naren (@karthicknaren_M) October 18, 2017
— Shanthnu Buddy (@imKBRshanthnu) October 17, 2017
9:15 am: Reports suggest Mersal has earned over Rs 150 crore even before its release.
9 am: Talking about Vijay, Mersal actor S J Suryah had earlier said, “Mersal will be a testimony to Vijay’s star power. You’ll see a brand new Vijay in the film.”
8:40 am: Mersal is reportedly releasing in 295 screens in Kerala.
8:25 am: Fans are going gaga over Vijay’s Mersal:
— Maheswaran (@Maheswaran_PM) October 18, 2017
— Iam Aravind (@srk_aravind) October 18, 2017
— Nandu Krishna (@nandukrishna000) October 18, 2017
#Mersal Yet another Mass entertainer from Vijay. All 3 Characters were a delight to watch. Vadivelu made a great Comeback!
— Mithun K Raman (@mithunraman) October 18, 2017
8:10 am: Vijay’s flashback oozes mass in each frame
8 am: Fans celebrate the release of Mersal.
— sridevi sreedhar (@sridevisreedhar) October 17, 2017
7:45 am: Mersal, reportedly, has crossed thes $300K mark at the US box office.
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) October 18, 2017
7:30 am: Things look good so far for Vijay’s Mersal:
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) October 17, 2017
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) October 17, 2017
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) October 17, 2017
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) October 17, 2017
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) October 18, 2017
7:15 am: Reports suggest Adhirindi, the Telugu version of Mersal, has not received the censor board clearance. The release date of Adhirindi is still awaited.
7:00 am: Here’s a sneak peek at Mersal: