In Latin America, FIFA Scandal Fuels Anti-Corruption Movement.
By Frida Ghitis, June 4, 2015
|Anti-World Cup demonstrators hold a banner near Maracana stadium, where the final World Cup game took place, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014.|
When U.S. prosecutors unveiled a stack of corruption indictments against individuals involved with FIFA, the world’s governing body for soccer, they unwittingly added fuel to a potentially transformative movement that is emerging with astonishing force in Latin America.
Throughout the continent, powerful men and women who had grown accustomed to operating with impunity in gray areas of the law are suddenly finding themselves on the defensive. They now face a day of reckoning, as mass movements demand an end to graft, corruption and favoritism benefiting top government officials as well as their friends, families and supporters.
Against this backdrop, Washington’s FIFA bombshell burst in a most receptive region. Not only are Latin Americans already focused on corruption, they are also, as they have always been, obsessed with soccer.
It all amounts to a potent combination, which is likely to have a lasting impact that goes far beyond the beloved sport.
Corruption is hardly new in the region and, interestingly, it is not worse in Latin America than in other developing regions. Attitudes there, however, are changing. People once viewed the paying of bribes and “commissions” as business as usual, an ordinary practice too pervasive to combat. But increasingly they are coming to see it as unacceptable, a malady that saps the economy of vitality, undermines the meaning of democracy and hollows the rule of law. Anti-corruption activists have been trying to make the case that every bribe, every decision made on the basis of personal gain by a public official, is depriving their countries of resources they need to improve education, health care or infrastructure.
Soccer was already in the crosshairs when Brazil hosted the World Cup last year. Nobody can claim a more passionate love affair with the game than the Brazilian people, so it was more than a little surprising when massive crowds took to Brazil’s streets to protest the billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money spent to build stadiums, when roads and schools were desperately needed.
The sense of outrage did not vanish when the games ended. It only left Brazilians primed to look for corruption and attack it. They promptly found it, in epic proportions. A multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras has stoked popular fury. Millions of Brazilians have taken to the streets to demand the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
Argentina is also in the midst of a series of scandals. One of them is closing in on President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband, centering on a businessman who allegedly helped the power couple launder cash in exchange for lucrative business contracts.
In Chile, which has prided itself on being Latin America’s cleanest country in terms of corruption, often ranking at Western European levels in transparency scores, the country has been rocked by news that malfeasance reached very close to the top: President Michelle Bachelet’s son and his wife received a sweetheart loan deal, with the help of the vice president, to purchase a piece of land that they quickly sold at a multimillion-dollar profit. In the aftermath of the revelations, Bachelet has been forced to deny reports that she plans to resign.
In Guatemala, protests against corruption have already resulted in a major Cabinet shake-up and the resignation of the vice president. Protesters are demanding the president’s resignation. Other high-level corruption cases are unfolding in Panama, Venezuela, Mexico and elsewhere.
The scandals put governments on the defensive, but the FIFA cases give them the opportunity to side with the people.
Under normal circumstances, the actions of the U.S. government would trigger charges that Washington harbors imperialist designs on Latin America. In this case, however, the reaction was quite different. FIFA corruption is legendary. The charges were eminently believable.
The indictments from the U.S. Department of Justice immediately spawned a wave of actions by local authorities, who vowed to get to the bottom of the cases.
The U.S. investigation produced action even in places where no individual was named in the Washington indictments. Colombia already launched its own investigation and announced it would help the FBI. The financial analysis bureau in the top prosecutor’s office is looking into whether Colombian soccer officials conducted questionable transactions.
Argentina and Brazil, which play a major role in Washington’s case, already launched investigations. An Argentine prosecutor quickly charged three people with tax fraud, money laundering and racketeering. In Brazil, the justice minister said his office is investigating what crimes may have been committed by soccer officials.
Three of the 14 charged by the U.S. were Brazilians. Among them is the former head of the Brazilian soccer federation, Jose Marian Marin, who was arrested in Switzerland. Another, Jose Hawilla, already pleaded guilty to all manner of fraud and money laundering charges. Hawilla owns the giant sports firm Traffic Group, which helped channel millions of dollars in illegal transactions; Jose Margulies, another wealthy businessman, is accused of serving as an intermediary.
Fearing more arrests, the head of the Brazil Football Confederation, Marco Polo de Nero, fled Switzerland to the presumed safety of Brazil, missing the vote to re-elect his patron, Sepp Blatter, as FIFA president. Blatter won the vote, but almost immediately resigned as the implications of the U.S. indictments became clearer.
In Paraguay, a judge ordered the arrest of 86-year-old Nicolas Leoz, a former member of FIFA’s executive committee charged by U.S. authorities. Leoz—who headed Conmebol, the regional federation, for almost three decades—had once reportedly demanded a British knighthood in exchange for his vote.
Leoz’s successor at Conmebol, the Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo, was arrested by Swiss police. Reports in Uruguay say current and former soccer executives in the country are now under investigation.
The overwhelming sentiment in the region is that criminal action against FIFA officials was warranted. In Brazil, people asked why it took Washington to get the ball rolling, as it were.
The U.S. case against soccer corruption has hit Latin America at precisely the right moment, in precisely the right area. The region is as receptive as it has ever been on the need to battle against corruption, and soccer is one topic that captures the public imagination. This case will help strengthen the very salutary view that corruption cannot and should not be accepted as the normal way of conducting business. And once the culprits in FIFA have been dealt with, those in government will be back in the spotlight.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.