Panelists Examine Future of Anti-Corruption Initiatives in Latin America at Rockefeller Center Event


Two professors discussed their upcoming book project on the future of anti-corruption initiatives in Latin America Tuesday at an online event with Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

Ezequiel A. González-Ocantos, a professor at the University of Oxford, and Paula Muñoz, a professor at the Universidad del Pacífico in Peru, spoke about their upcoming book, which examines the effects of anti-corruption efforts — with a particular focus on the “Lava Jato” investigation in Brazil — on voter activity and political engagement. The event, titled “The Criminalization of Corruption in Latin America: Causes and Consequences of Lava Jato,” marks the latest installment in the center's "Tuesday Seminar Series.”

González-Ocantos opened the virtual discussion by describing the historical context and academic objectives of their research for the book.

“Our interest in Lava Jato stems perhaps from a broader question: What is the best way to fight corruption?” González-Ocantos said.


González-Ocantos explained that anti-corruption efforts can have varying effects on public opinion: They can either increase or decrease political engagement overall. He also said that some of these initiatives employ aggressive and controversial tactics, which may repel voters.

“In many ways, the prosecutorial zeal that is needed to take on the establishment often also becomes the Achilles heel of these investigations,” he said.

The two professors presented data from case studies conducted in Lima, Peru and Recife, Brazil to demonstrate the tendency of anti-corruption efforts like Lava Jato to either politically inspire or frustrate citizens.

“There’s the optimists who believe that perhaps these crusades can be interpreted by the voters as a sign that the system is capable of disrupting business as usual,” González-Ocantos said. “These are big bangs that dramatize in very clear ways that a country can become politically better.”

Harvard Government professor Alisha C. Holland, who led the panel, and Harvard Government lecturer Frances Hagopian, who moderated the panel, questioned the professors about the specific methodologies used in their research.

In an interview after the event, Muñoz said she hopes their research will draw attention to the political complexities of corruption prosecution.

“It’s very important to send a message that high-level authorities must deal with justice, that they are no different from the rest of citizens, so that is what is at stake here now,” she said.

Following the event, Holland further explained the cultural importance of anti-corruption initiatives. She emphasized that their high-profile nature is a large part of what makes them influential political tools.

“Many times these are televised proceedings and they’re making the nightly news. And so the public at large often ends up consuming these as a sort of soap opera unfolding in the politicized world,” she said.

Holland also noted the parallels of González-Ocantos and Muñoz’s scholarship on anti-corruption efforts to politics in the United States.

“Some of the broader normative questions that were raised today about what those types of prosecutions do to public trust in the political system, and the ways that they can further polarize an electorate, are important to think about in terms of the United States as well,” she said.

The next installment in the seminar series, titled “Democratic Backsliding in Contemporary Latin America,” will take place on Oct. 27.