José Ugaz has spent much of his adult life fighting corruption – first in his home country of Peru, where his investigations as a state attorney caused the collapse of the Fujimori regime, and then globally as the president of anti-corruption civil society organization Transparency International. Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk spoke to Mr. Ugaz in advance of the December 9 International Anti-Corruption Day, about what his experience has been in fighting corruption, the lessons he’s learned, and what steps societies need to take in order to truly defeat corruption.
Mr. Ugaz, the fight against corruption is a huge concern in Ukraine, in a lot of post-authoritarian societies here in Eastern Europe, but now we’re at the stage where we’re creating a lot of anti-corruption institutions, from the prosecutor’s office, to the anti-corruption court – to what extent do you think this is the way forward, for creating institutions, and how can you make them efficient, as they’re still vulnerable? And how long will it take to make them efficient?
First of all, corruption, and specifically grand corruption, is a problem for the world, not just Ukraine. Two-thirds of the world, according to the Corruption Perception Index, are seriously affected by grand corruption. If you see what’s happening now in Latin America, you’ll see that most of our countries in South America are quite in major crisis because of issues related to corruption. In this country, after the Maidan revolution, several institutions were created in order to fight corruption, and of course after Yanukovych, and all that you have experienced during that regime, it was necessary to create an infrastructure to tackle grand corruption. That’s why the NABU (National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine - ed.) was created, the SAPO (Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office - ed.), the Prosecutor General’s Office tried to focus on anti-corruption, and now you have the High Anti-Corruption Court and other institutions around them. The problem is that it is not enough to create infrastructure. You need to put a lot of political will into it, and it is clear that in the former regime of Mr. Poroshenko, that there was no political will to make effective these anti-corruption measures and policies. I remember I had a conversation with former prosecutor-general, Mr. [Yuriy] Lutsenko – amazingly the only attorney general in the world that had no legal background – and he said he was going to implement strong anti-corruption measures. And nothing happened. It’s amazing when you observe this from outside the country that there is not even one case of corruption that has matured enough to generate results regarding the [Viktor] Yanukovych experience and all the other cases of corruption that had been happening in the past years. So it is not only about creating institutions, it’s about allocating political will, resources, and basically to start enforcing the capacity of all these agencies that should coordinate among themselves, in order to generate results. There is no fixed term in which you say ‘Okay, usually in three years, four years, five years, you will have results.’ In the case of my country, Peru, when we started the anti-corruption process against the Fujimori regime, we deliver results in 3 months. We recovered $75 million in six months, and put under criminal investigation 1500 people in the first 14 months of work. But after obtaining these amazing results, then nothing happened in the change of the structures, and then Peru went again to very heavy levels of grand corruption. Nineteen years after that experience, now the prosecutors are fighting corruption in my country, and this time, are taking advantage of what happened 19 years ago. So my experience is that in order to obtain sustainable results – you can obtain immediate results if there’s political will and I can say that in very few months you can put some of the big powerful actors of corruption in front of justice, and maybe you can obtain convictions also within one year or a year and a half or maybe two years – but I would say that to obtain sustainable, achievable results, this is a process of accumulation of experiences. So the Peruvian prosecutors of 2019 are making effective results building on what we did in 2000, 2002, 2004, fifteen years ago.
At the same time I’d like to ask about the Ukrainian institutions – but to follow up on what you were saying about Peru – still, I feel like you have this case against Mr. Fujimori. And now recently there was a case against his daughter who created a party, which somehow looks like impunity. It doesn’t matter if the politician is there, still in public opinion, the people around them claim that they are not corrupt, they create their own parties, and say that these are political persecutions. You said that there were good results, but now we again have Fujimori’s daughter, or something else – what do you think it takes for society to really solve corruption?
First of all, there is no political candidate that doesn’t speak about fighting corruption. That’s typical. There is no corrupt political leader that doesn’t say he’s a politically persecuted person. So this is nothing new. The second thing is that you are not going to solve systemic corruption with criminal justice. You can prosecute, investigate, and convict those responsible for these crimes – Fujimori right now is in prison paying 25 years, like Montesinos, like many of the leaders of his criminal network – but we don’t have the illusion that we are going to change the problem of corruption in Peru by putting people in prison, because our corruption, like yours, is systemic, is structural. It’s not the problem of one party, or two or three bad leaders or bad politicians. If we don’t change our structural justice system, if we don’t change the way we educate our people, if we don’t change the way we do business, we invest in infrastructure in a way that gives us access to decision-making processes – you can put a lot of people in prison, but new people will come after them, and again will be involved in corrupt practices. So the criminal justice system plays a role, and that role is to avoid impunity, and to sanction those who have committed crimes. But if you don’t solve a previous situation, there are those structural problems, and you need to ask yourself – where are the structural problems in Ukraine that constantly generate grand corruption actors on the field, and why, in the past decades, all the leaders of this country have been taking money and generating corrupt schemes. Most of them are still under impunity. We’ll see if the new institutions will start breaking that impunity tradition in Ukraine. But the problem is not just breaking impunity – the problem is solving the structural problems that generate corruption from the system itself.
You were following some of our anti-corruption institutions. How do you assess the court? It’s very recent, it opened only in September. But we also have NABU, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor, with their own controversies. There is also the case that the law enforcement agencies are competing with the anti-corruption agencies and that they are also part of the system that doesn’t let them develop.
I think it’s been a very good start, the way the new judges of the high anti-corruption court have been appointed. It has been a transparent process, with the intervention of international actors, neutral actors, selecting the best candidates for this task, so I think that’s a very good start. Now we need to see if the judges are going to accomplish the very delicate task they have on their hands. On the other hand, what we’ve been observing regarding the institutions created in Ukraine in the past years in order to confront corruption – we had several problems there. We had a prosecutor-general that was politically appointed and tainted and had no political will to promote the investigations. Then you had NABU not speaking with SAPO, and they were competing in order to reserve their own quotas of power, NABU complaining that they were doing the investigations but nothing happening once those investigations arrived to the prosecutor's office, and some of the prosecutor’s saying that they were promoting their own investigations, but nothing happened when they arrived to the judiciary. So if you don’t have a system that talks within itself, if agencies don’t talk and don’t share their responsibilities according to the mission they have in the entire system, of course nothing is going to happen. While the corrupt are all the time coordinating and talking amongst themselves, and have a lot of flexibility, then we find all these institutions within the states – and this is not only a problem within Ukraine of course – but you see a state that has institutions that are isolated, that do not coordinate, that do not cooperate, and of course then the corrupt will win the battle.
At this stage, is it too early for you to look at the new government – their ideas or their first steps?
Well in the hours I’ve been in the country, I think this is the tenth time I’m asked to respond to this question – and my answer is: it’s too soon to know. I think there are some good beginnings. The anti-corruption speech and motivation expressed by the president is a good start. What happened with the high anti-corruption court I think is also a good start. The profile of the prosecutor-general – I just had a meeting with him this afternoon – and what he expresses, I think, brings hope that things are going to start to change. But we need to see what happens in reality. They need to deliver results. If they don’t start frying some big fish, generating some transparent and legal processes against the corrupt and obtaining some convictions against those that clearly have been involved in grand corruption cases – they will not recover the trust of the public. And citizens right now do not believe in their institutions because they have been defrauded for many years.
You’ve mentioned that many corrupt officials often say that ‘this is a political prosecution’, that’s not a new thing. But it’s still concerning when people close to the previous regime are often to be the first to be targeted, often by those who are now in those positions. In the case of your fight against corruption in Peru – you said there were 1,500 people prosecuted in a very short term – how do you see this point of selective justice? When the government goes against those who were their political opponents, or their current or political opponents?
That’s a real risk. When the investigations and prosecutions are triggered by the executive, by the political branch of government – but, supposedly, the prosecutor-general, the NABU, and the SAPO are independent institutions, they don’t obey instructions from the new government. And I hope that the new prosecutor-general will not be politically manipulated by the interests of this government. In my case, in Peru, I was appointed to investigate Montesinos, and eleven days after our appointment, we opened an investigation against the president that appointed us, that was Fujimori. And right now, the attorney general’s office in my country is prosecuting the four last former presidents of Peru, all of them from different political parties. So you have Mr. Humala, Mr. Toledo, Garcia that killed himself in order to avoid a criminal investigation for corruption, and Mr Kuczynski. Nobody can say in that case that there is a political motivation in the investigations of corruption. The problem is that almost all the politicians that arrive to high-level in countries like mine, and I assume also something similar happens in Ukraine, get involved in corrupt practices. That is not the fault of the prosecutors. They need to be investigated, and the thing here is that due process of law must be in place in order to avoid these speeches of saying ‘We are politically persecuted and this is just a hunt, a political hunt against opponents of the government.’
Currently, we see that some of the new populistic parties or politicians are running campaigns with an anti-corruption agenda. And among them, there are quite dubious people. You know, Trump ran with an anti-corruption agenda, Bolsonaro was speaking about anti-corruption, the parties which are, let’s say, have authoritarian trends in eastern Europe, they’re all having this agenda. The fight against corruption was always there but now it sounds more present for the general public. How can we work with this narrative? Because in many recent cases – Brexit was done with an idea that there are corrupt officials, drain the swamp is a phrase that’s used, and we know how the phrase is misused in order to work with the establishment – how can people genuinely in the anti-corruption movement shape this narrative? And prevent it from being hijacked?
It is absolutely true and I said it before, that there’s no candidate in these times that doesn’t center their campaign speech. Why? Because anti-corruption is profitable, politically speaking. Like the eradication of poverty, inequality, generating labour positions, work for the people – of course this is profitable. And the politicians know, the candidates know this and they of course get into these populist offers of trying to sell a product of their profile as the candidate, the one that is going to fight and defeat corruption. It is possible to try to clean the agenda of the candidates if we first of all have enough information of who that candidate is, where are they coming from. The problem is that in our political campaigns, we are not always aware of the information regarding some specific candidates. So I think that the first obligation of a citizen that is going to vote is to try to know who is the person who is offering all these things. And for civil society organizations like Transparency International Ukraine or others involved in the mission of combating corruption there is the obligation to try to monitor all these candidates, to try to acquire all this information and put this information in the public domain so people know where are these people coming from. I can assure you that if you investigate the candidates, in very little time, in weeks probably, you will know who they are, where are they coming from, what they did before they were candidates in the position they had. And many of them will have severe doubts and suspicions of being people involved or linked to corruption, to organized crime, and other negative things.
In Ukraine, and in other countries in the region, one of the biggest issues is oligarchy, which is a system that has corruption as part of it, and oligarchy is part of corruption. However, these big monopolies were created some time ago, maybe decades ago. At the same time, we know some companies were privatized in a non-transparent and dubious way, however these are already big companies. And foreign investors are extremely cautious about private property rights and any kind of big change in the ownership of these companies… Everyone talks about fighting oligarchy. But if there are three or four biggest businessmen in the country with the huge companies working with Western companies, that could be seen as a disruption of the market. We can’t really find a way to fight monopoly...Where can you freeze things or create a starting point at zero where you can investigate former crimes for instance? How do you think you can fight oligarchy and corruption but at the same time not spooking foreign investors?
Impunity is a very negative factor. And it doesn’t matter if it’s impunity now or if it was impunity ten years ago. I would say that the only limitation that probably you will need in order to investigate corruption and sanction corruption from the past, is the legal limitation, if the statute of limitations has already passed. Then you cannot go after these people. But in many of the fortunes of our country you will find at the beginning the implementation of corrupt practices. That’s how they made...many of these people, not all of them, made their fortunes with unlawful practices. And that cannot be allowed. That needs to be addressed in order to try to generate for the future a clean environment of how to do business in our countries. Because a company that is tainted, and is in the hands of an oligarch or someone that is used to corrupt practices, or influence, or to monopolistic activities on the market, for sure you will have a corrupt environment in general in the business sector. It is also necessary for the private sector to apply effort in order to change some rules of doing business and try to eradicate all those old practices linked to corruption or to different practices that affect a free market that is basically, with access to information and transparency, the assurance of a positive way out.
The former special prosecutor of Peru, former chairman of the board of Transparency International, José Carlos Ugaz, Kyiv, October 30, 2019. Photo: hromadske
What would be your opinion on someone saying, ‘Look, those people who have done something wrong in the 90s, unless they do something wrong now, let’s leave them with what they have already’?
As I said, if there are no legal consequences and the statute of limitations has run out, okay. Now we want to see the way we are going to conduct their business now, and we need to monitor that and be very careful, because there’s also a very common practice in countries like ours, where they say ‘Oh wow, this is such a big company, such a big entrepreneur that we cannot touch them.’ And we’ve seen many many times these people abuse their power and influence and causing conflicts of interests. Maybe they’re not directly bribing public officials, but they are abusing their position in order to obtain some favors from the system. So conflicts of interests, lobbying, and other practices that are on the grey zone need to be addressed and monitored in order to impede the spread of corrupt practices and abuses of the market.
Recently, Ukraine has been in the pages of American and global media due to the phone call between President Zelenskyy and President Trump. Do you find the whole case of this quid-pro-quo as a case of corruption?
If you go to the formal definition of corruption, corruption is the abuse of power to obtain personal gain. And we would need – of course corruption is much more than that definition, there are many features of corruption and the complexity of the phenomenon makes it very difficult to define – but I would say that first of all, in this affair between Trump and the new president of Ukraine, we need to be clear on the political consequences of this relation. I think something is going to be produced, and evidence is going to be collected in the process of the United States political system. And then we will have more clarity of what was happening there. If there was an unlawful way of obtaining favors that was going to generate individual benefit for some of the actors, then we will definitely be in front of an undue practice and probably a corrupt practice.
Mr. Trump himself tried to play that the son of Vice President Biden was corrupt by being on the board of a Ukrainian company that we see has a dubious past before Biden was there. And legally it looks like he got his money for what he was doing on the board. But generally, to what extent is it questionable to have the son of the vice president of a big country being on the board of a company? Is it trading on his name?
It depends. First of all, what does the president of the United States have to do with calling the president of Ukraine to try to motivate an investigation in that country? That’s absolutely improper. At least improper. And probably corrupt. Some people are talking about extortion – ‘If you don’t investigate this guy then my aid to your country will be compromised.’ So that’s a first questionable thing. On the other hand, the position of Biden’s son in a Ukrainian company can be investigated, and I assume authorities here are going to investigate this seriously, without the pressure of Trump or the United States. If there are allegations that this guy has been involved in corrupt practices, there is no reason not to investigate him. So if that investigation is neutral, is proper, and with guarantees of due process, of course it must move forward.
I need to repeat that in the case of Hunter Biden, there was nothing showing that he was involved in. It’s an issue that the company had problems and has been faced with allegations of receiving licenses from the Ministry of the Environment...before 2014, before Hunter Biden. Now we’re reading transcripts… it shows that there is a lot involved in the high level of American politics. From the beginning that now you have President Trump’s inner circle, his kids are also involved the business, for some people this is dubious… There is political pressure. How does this influence the global discussion on corruption and how does it influence the role of the United States as the country that – for many countries, is the example of rule of law and funds programs helping create anti-corruption institutions? We also see that the inner circle are questionable – there are a lot of questions surrounding Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani and the people around him – how do you think this impacts this aid for anti-corruption in Ukraine? It’s legitimacy, it’s ethics, and the influence of this kind of scandal on moral legitimacy of such a big country?
First of all, the United States is not the best example of a political system. Their campaigns are all tainted by different interests in campaign financing, and this has been a problem for years. Nothing has been done because there are huge resistance from the political parties and actors to clean and make transparent the way they finance their campaigns. In the case of Trump, with all the noise and allegations of corruptions around him, and the people that are around him as well, generates more suspicions of how clean and how legitimate are his interests in running the country. You have to talk to many of the American actors and they are very critical of the situation of Trump. The second thing is that in these issues, there are what we call PEPs – politically exposed persons. And PEPs like the son of Biden, Biden himself, Trump, and other people that are relevant for public opinion and public interest, they have to conduct themselves with more accurate care in order not to incur improper situations. So this is a very difficult affair because it involves politicians, two countries, sovereignty, and different rules in each country in order to process the situation. I think situations like this need to be avoided. And since we are talking about PEPs on both sides, there must be thorough investigations in order to try to establish if proper rules have been broken.
Is there more corruption globally, in recent years, or are we just hearing more about it because it’s more exposed? There are more anti-corruption movements, because generally people think that things are getting worse. But if you look, you think ‘Hm, wasn’t corruption around in the 20th century?’ Or are other countries becoming more corrupt? Or are we just talking more about it?
Well, you’ll find both positions in the public debate – people that say ‘No no, it’s the same corruption we had 30 years ago but now it's more visible because of communication, etc. we are hearing more about it.’ I personally believe that we are having more corruption and this is because there is more money on the table. All the technology and financial systems and all the enablers that are around the financial system make it easier to take money and move it – assets or resources from one place to another. You’ve seen what happened with the Panama Papers, or the Paradise Papers. 72 heads of state were involved in the Panama Papers scheme with offshore companies that were moving dirty money from one place to another to pay bribes to evade taxation, to help organized crime, diamonds, trafficking, human trafficking or drug trafficking. That didn’t happen 50 years ago. Now you have many financial instruments that make it easier to commission different crimes with difficult possibilities of following the money. All these ‘paradises’ that we found around the world, where you can hide money with very sophisticated systems make it more difficult to trace. Look at what happened with the Lava Jato case, the car wash affair that started in Brazil and had a negative impact on 12 countries in Latin America – only one company, Odebrecht, had a department within the structure of the company to manage the bribes that they were paying all around the region. And they had four layers of offshore companies to move the money without the possibility of being identified. Those mechanisms didn’t exist 30 years ago. So I think this has triggered the capacity and impact of grand corruption. At the same time, not all is negative. Also because we are living in a global world, with online communications, internet, and so on, there are some lights too. There is more capacity to investigate, to make follow-up of all these actions, the coordination between the countries, the possibility now with the United Nations Convention against Corruption, or the OECD, or the World Bank, or the IMF, that has a very significant role in Ukraine – now the IMF is talking about corruption, and conditionality, in order to observe how the actors are going to move regarding corruption. So all these are new elements that are on the debate of the fight against corruption, and one very significant that is playing a role in many countries around the world is people mobilization. Ten years ago, nobody went to the streets against corruption. After the Arab Spring, you’ve seen how the people are going to the streets in their millions, and in some cases they have obtained with these mobilizations amazing results. The prime minister of South Korea had to resign, in Romania they stopped after a demonstration of 1.5 million people a draft law intended to legalize bribes under 10,000 euros, the situation in Brazil with Lava Jato, more than 3 million people took to the streets, in Guatemala people went to public demonstrations for months until the former president went to prison. So citizens now are also positive actors in these processes against corruption.
Now, after the Paradise Papers, or Panama papers revelations, have you seen more political will in particular from the big, important countries to do something with offshore tax havens and money laundering, in reality?
In some cases, yes, but in most of these cases is because of the pressure of the citizens. Organized citizens like Transparency International, for example. Transparency International went to the G20 in Australia in 2014 and put on the debate the necessity of implementing a register to know who are the ultimate beneficiaries of offshores. This debate started in 2014, in 2016 Cameron came to a summit in London, and there, 12 countries registered themselves in order to put in place that register. Right now there are seven countries who have that register in place. So this takes time. As I said before, this is a result of accumulative processes. And I think that because of the demands of citizens, and organized civil society, some of the leaders of the world and the big institutions are giving some space in order to make possible implementations of better controls against corruption.
At the same time, in particular in this country, there are other states mentioned as positive results, but maybe you can elaborate more. For instance, anti-corruption fights, like Singapore is sometimes raised an example. But however we know that it’s not the best democracy, if you talk about other freedoms, so of course – but there is this myth that it is this country with a low level of corruption. How would you assess that? We know that there is a very high level of corruption in China, but there are a lot of political cases against party members where people might be even sentenced to death in a corruption case. But it’s sometimes used as an example for societies like ours.
There are different responses to different questions. The case of Singapore – it’s a city-state. It’s a very small community. It’s very easy to control what happens in a community like Singapore And it’s true that it’s an authoritarian regime. But they have been efficient in controlling corruption. That’s undeniable. But I think it has to do with the political conditions. On the other hand, you have Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not an authoritarian regime, and they were very successful in curbing corruption 40 years ago when the police scandals started there. You have Botswana in Africa after 3 different administration, they have been able to reduce corruption amazingly. And they are in very good shape on the situation of integrity and transparency. The case of China is-is different. Some weeks ago, they found one Chinese citizen with $40 billion in his personal account and 13 pounds of gold in his house. One citizen. $40 billion. In the past, after the China leaks, twenty members of parliament had in their account $62 billion that were taken out of China to some offshore paradises. It is my sense that there is no political will in the Chinese system to address corruption. Then when these scandals arise, it’s because someone leaked information or clashed with the official system. But if you see some of the Chinese companies going around the world to do business, many of them are implementing corrupt practices, and exporting corrupt practices to the other countries, without any control or supervision of the Chinese system. So I think that even though President Xi Jinping in several cases has mentioned his intention to fight corruption, he needs, and the system needs, to put in place more express evidence that this is going beyond a speech and that the system is going to confront corruption.
The former special prosecutor of Peru, former chairman of the board of Transparency International, José Carlos Ugaz, Kyiv, October 30, 2019. Photo: hromadske
How do you see the situation in our region, in Eastern Europe? We had more than a year ago events in Armenia where there was a change in government, this summer the oligarch of Moldova left the country, at the same time there are the same things happening in Azerbaijan and Russia. How do you generally see the region’s development?
Eastern Europe has been performing very lousy in corruption issues, and you have some emblematic oligarchs and corrupt actors in the region, acting for decades, like in Africa, or in Asian countries or in some Latin American countries. I think this is a heritage of a system but also it has become part of the political culture, in order to allow these people to seize power and benefit themselves and their families immensely from the resources of the country. But some hope is coming into some of these countries, some of the ones you have mentioned. Ukraine is one that is opening windows. That’s my perception right now. There’s a moment of opening windows, and I think civil society, and people that are really willing to generate change have to take advantage of this opening of the windows. But it is the responsibility of President Zelenskyy and his regime to demonstrate that he is really willing to generate a transformation of the structures and change for the country. This is the same challenge for other countries in the region too.
I had the chance to talk to the former president of Estonia, Toomas Ilves, who visited Ukraine and was very critical about corruption. But when we talked he explained that in the Estonian language, there are two different words for corruption. There is a word for petty corruption, which means that you as a citizen, for example, pay a small bribe for a service the state or somebody else needs to provide you either faster or at all to get access, and there is this high-level corruption, where the state really abuses their power or enriches themselves. Do you think this differentiation helps society to focus and help understand what we’re fighting?
No. I think it’s a false dilemma. Corruption is corruption. You have petty corruption, or grand corruption. Both of them have very negative impacts on our societies. Of course, they have different natures. But it is very dangerous to try to explain petty corruption by saying ‘Oh, this is part of our culture.’ No, it is not part of the culture. There are some traditions, like in Africa – there are words in order to explain the exchange of favors. In our societies in Latin America, we also have these specific words in order to traditionally explain the exchange of favors. But this is not corruption – this is something different. When you try to adjust the traditional structures to explain what’s going on with the bureaucrats, with the police that is charging someone in every corner in order to obtain some coins and not sanction that person, that is not a traditional practice – that is corruption. But there is a false dilemma from people saying ‘Well, if we fight grand corruption, then we will forget about petty corruption.’ No, we have to fight both. But they have different strategies. And in this case of petty corruption the issue has to do with this cultural challenge of moving from a culture of corruption that has been implemented for years in our societies – not because we Peruvians are more corrupt than the Finnish – it’s because the way we were organizing our societies was embedding corruption from the very beginning, when the viceroys came from Spain, they generated a clientelistic way of relations. But that doesn’t have anything to do with our DNA for being from this race or this culture. So there’s a challenge there. I always say that the difference between corruption in Latin America and corruption in Spain – and most of our countries come from the Spanish colonies – is that in Spain, and there’s a lot of corruption in Spain, is that the corruption is of the elites. But the common Spanish citizen doesn’t imagine himself putting a hand in his pocket and taking ten euros to bribe a policeman. Or to pay a bureaucrat in order to obtain a license. It’s not in the way they think. In Latin America, everyone is used to saying ‘Well, this policeman is going to stop me, then I bribe him, and I will bribe a bureaucrat in order to obtain a license quickly for my request. So I think for countries like mine, and many others in this world, there’s a double challenge – we have to fight corruption, but we also have to fight the fact that corruption has been normalized. People believe that this is a normal way of living and moving forward.
Have you heard some of the surveys in Ukraine – I’m sure you’ve seen it, either yourself or someone showed you – that says when you ask people if there is corruption, and if they personally recently had been involved in or asked for a bribe, they say that there is a smaller level of corruption that people confront, rather than this general concept of there being corruption in the country?
Well, it’s difficult. It’s part of a defensive psychological way of reacting. When they ask you about corruption, it is very easy to point to the other and say ‘Well this is a corrupt guy, or this government or this political party.’ When they ask ‘Have you been involved in any corrupt practices?’ you immediately say ‘No’ and maybe they think that what they’re doing is not corruption, or maybe they’re just lying because they are ashamed of themselves. But if we go and look at the day to day practice of our people in many of our countries, we will find that many of them are committing petty corrupt practices all the time, because they believe it is a normal way to survive in this jungle of a third-world country.
Can you elaborate more – we started with your work in particular as a prosecutor general in Peru. What did you need? You were hired by the former president Fujimori. He wanted to as I understand also get rid of his political opponent and that you would investigate his opponents. But in the end, you investigated the president himself. What resources did you need? It’s quite dangerous, it looks good, there’s a hero attorney that comes and kills this corrupt system, but what did you need to do that?
First of all, Fujimori was in a big crisis because his personal advisor appeared in a video bribing a congressman. That was the situation that triggered the crisis, because people went to the streets and started demanding that Fujimori step down. And then he decided to appoint me – not to investigate his opponent – but to investigate, formally, his partner Montesinos that had flown away after the video appeared. And then we decided to go after him when we received evidence that he was also involved, apparently in money laundering issues and other corrupt practices. In those days, we didn’t have an office, we were just appointed, and we were acting in our private offices, me and my two deputies. We didn't have a budget, we were putting up our own money in order to mobilize the first investigations. We were just recruiting our team, so we were in a very precarious situation. But we believed, we strongly believed, me and my team, that we had a mission to accomplish at that moment, and that had to do with the future of the country. And we said ‘Okay, this is dangerous.’ Of course, it is dangerous. We are in a very precarious situation, we can get in trouble – yes we can get in trouble. But we think we need to do this, because of the future. Because of our own future, and the families, and the people we believe have to develop in our country.
But how can such a small team go after 1,500 people?
We were not alone. We had the citizenship supporting our actions. When we were attacked – and we were attacked several times – there were public demonstrations, like now defending the prosecutors of these days, there were public demonstrations defending us. The independent newspapers and TV programs and investigative journalists were all the time supporting our work and informing the public about what was going on. So we felt that it was a historical role that we had to accomplish, and it happened. Two weeks after we started these investigations, Fujimori flew away, the regime collapsed, a transitional president came, and this was a fantastic guy. Our transitional president Paniagua gave all the support we needed for this investigation. He gave us a budget, he gave us an office, and that’s the way we could mobilize all these investigations.
The former special prosecutor of Peru, former chairman of the board of Transparency International, José Carlos Ugaz, Kyiv, October 30, 2019. Photo: hromadske
But how did you deal with courts that may be dependent on the political elite? Of course you can say that the pressure from the public and the citizens is important for the courts, but is it enough?
In our case, it was unique. Because the entire system collapsed. So the attorney general had to resign, the Supreme Court justices had to resign, the military was in panic, so the entire system collapsed. So that’s when the moral reserve of the country appeared. So new, young judges were appointed by the provisional president of the court, and the same happened in the prosecutor's office, so there was a new generation of clean people willing to do something. I understand that this is not always the case. I’ve been in many countries where there were interesting prosecutors moving their investigations forward, and once they send the investigations to the judiciary, everything stops. It’s clear that nothing is going to move or generate results if you still have these judges that are linked to corrupt interests and powerful economic groups. And then when that happens, the only way to break this problem is to make this public, to denounce it, to mobilize people and say ‘This cannot be sustainable for much longer.’ We’ve seen, how in the case of – again, six months ago, the attorney general who was trying to obstruct the investigations of corruption conducted by the special task force of prosecutors, was forced to resign because the people went to the streets. And they went every day to his office, thousands of people, asking for his resignation. The journalists were publishing all the time all the linkages with this guy with organized crime, with other interests, so he couldn’t stand that, and he had to resign. So we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the citizens and the power of other allies when positive forces get together – journalists, civil society organizations, even some business elites that are willing to change the environment in which they make business.
You mentioned the people going to the streets previously and journalists publishing information – we had an election this year, two of them, one of them was presidential, and we had a corruption scandal regarding the military in the defense sector about the way how they bought some things, for the Ukrainian military. Yet some of the journalists who made this investigation were criticized for playing a political card. But they ran this investigation before the elections, they investigated the other side as well, so you can’t say that they’re biased – but there was quite huge criticism from other civil society organizations that ‘You are playing the cards of the politicians, the state is fragile, and there is this anti-establishment movement, and the populists are using it…’ What would you say about that? I think that that narrative is somewhere still present.
It is impossible to confront grand corruption and trying to break impunity traditions or inertia without receiving accusations of all types. They’ll say you are breaching some national security issues, that you are mobilized because of some political or business interests, that you are anti-nationalists or whatever – but when this noise appears, the first reaction I have is ‘something good is happening because people are reacting.’ And in the case of Ukraine – you had two revolutions on the streets, the power of the people, when the people react and organize themselves, makes some good things happen. And I think that regarding grand corruption, as we will see in the coming years around the world, is more and more people engagement in the confrontation against corruption.
There is one instrument, which is coming from this region, we’re speaking about the Magnitsky Act, which was adopted first in the States, and then in Canada, and the idea is that using this instrument, the corrupt people who committed some crimes, or crimes against human rights, could have their accounts frozen in the US or countries which adopted this act. Do you find this instrument successful, and could it be used for different countries? It was created because of Russia, but it's not just Russia. To what extent do you think this is a useful instrument, and can it be used more or in some different way?
I think the Magnitsky Act is a very valuable tool. I have witnessed how much it upsets some of the biggest crooks of the world. The Venezuelan members of the Maduro mafia – because that’s not a regime, that’s a mafia – that has generated a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, they are really upset because they can’t go to the States. Their visas are denied, and some European countries are going in the same direction. Their assets are being frozen and seized in the United States, and their names are constantly appearing in the public record. And they hate having light shined on their actions. So my opinion of the Magnitsky Act is a positive one. Of course, it could be dangerous if it is used for political interests. We need to be cautious and monitor all these situations in order to denounce when there is a deviation from the positive use of these types of tools. But I think that up to now, for many countries that are victims of grand corruption and abuses of human rights, this instrument in the United States is producing very positive results.
Apart from the citizens' movement, you’re working with cases of corruption. It could be very frustrating, when every day you read how corrupt this world is. And citizens on the streets could be inspiring. But aside from citizen movements, what global, systematic cases where things worked well and were your recent inspirations?
There are two different approaches to this question. The first is total successes. I mentioned Hong Kong, I mentioned Botswana, I think those are two typical cases of how the entire system improved, and it was sustainable for a time, for many years, and it is still sustainable. But then you have the other cases where small progress is achieved. And that’s why I was talking about a process of accumulation. My country is a good example of that. Twenty years ago we had these vigorous, amazing, anti-corruption processes. And then we went again to a horrible period of grand corruption. The four last presidents are under investigation or in prison because of corruption. And now we have a very interesting situation where the transitional president – we have again a transitional president – has closed Congress. The people are supporting it. This is a constitutional measure in our Constitution, so it is part of the legal system. But then there’s a positive dynamic of the reforms that need to be done in order to change, finally, some of the basic problems of Peru. And this is happening. I don’t know how it’s going to finish. But right now there’s a lot of expectations. And this wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t accumulated some small progress from the past. We are not signatories of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. We are signatories of the Latin American Convention against Corruption. We are signatories of the OECD Convention against Bribery, we are part of different systems – our foreign affairs minister is absolutely involved in all the international efforts to tackle corruption. So this hadn’t happened 25 years ago. We shouldn’t expect huge changes in 24 hours. But I am an optimist. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I wasn’t an optimistic person. I’m looking at the small progress that can when put together generate grand changes.
In the case of the investigation after Fujimori – there was a success. But what was the dangerous moment where things went wrong way?
First of all, corruption always fights back. You cannot achieve some good results in the fight against corruption and then sit down and rest, no. You need to continue fighting because corruption is always fighting back. There is a phenomenon called re-corruption, where corruption comes back worse than the first time you fought it.
Like a counter-revolution for corruption.
Yes. In the Peruvian case, it is completely clear to me what happened: we had very good results with the anti-corruption process, the transitional president Paniagua was there for eight months, he did a fantastic job, and unfortunately he decided to leave power, he was a democrat. And then the new president, Mr Toledo, who is now in prison in the United States for receiving $30 million from a Brazilian company to grant them a project, decided to stop all the political reforms and the anti-corruption process. During the transitional government, President Paniagua established a commission to try to explain to Peruvians what happened during the past ten years with Fujimori. And there was a report, a very interesting report with a lot of suggestions and a plan to move the country forward. When Toledo received this in a public ceremony, he said okay, this is great, I will work on this. And then he opened a drawer and put it in and never again spoke about it in the five years he was president. Because he had 30 million reasons to stop the anti-corruption process – he was taking bribes from these companies. So that’s the moment when we stopped and started the reversal process, until now. That scandal of Lava Jato has generated such a big impact on the country that citizens again reacted like in 2000 and said ‘No no. What’s happening here? We went through this script ten years ago, why are we again in this situation?’ And now there’s all these new political dynamic that is apparently moving in a positive way.
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