The state is impersonal; an Argentinean only understands personalistic relationships.  That is why, for him, stealing pubic funds is not a crime,” said Jorge Luis Borges, in an attempt to explain why, in Argentina, corruption is the coin of the realm.  If we add to this expressions that promote cronyism, such as that used by several former Latin American Presidents that I chose for the title of this piece, it can make for an explosive cocktail.

And this is the sort of thing which took place just a few days ago.  In different countries from the region –including Peru and Argentina– cases were uncovered in which a group of the “well-connected” gained privileged access to coronavirus vaccinations.  In Peru, in what has come to be known as “Vacunagate,” approximately 500 people were immunized in a perferential manner before the country’s vaccination campaign was officially rolled out.  Among them were politicians, staff members, businessmen, and some of their family members and friends, including a former president and the health minister, who ended up resigning.  And this took place in a country with some of the worst coronavirus numbers in the world and in which vaccination of the general public has just begun with a very limited batch of vaccines.

Delia Ferreira Rubio, president of Transparency International, shares an ilustración by cartoonist @MahnazYazdani of privileged access to vaccination.

In Argentina, the incident was dubbed as “Vacunatorio VIP” (VIP Vaccine-atorium). In this case, the minister of health had set up an exclusive vaccination center in the city of Buenos Aires for politicians, staffers, union leaders, businesspeople, and other well-connected types outside of the legally-established vaccination protocols –all of this in a a context of vaccine scarcity (less than 1% of the population having been vaccinated) and an atrocious influence in vaccine administration.  In the face of public outrage, Pres. Alberto Fernández asked the minister of health to resign in an effort at political damage control following the scandal.  Some journalistic sources have suggested that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that there may be preferential treatment in vaccination in many locations.

The Other Pandemic

In a previous piece I described corruption, Latin America’s other endemic virus, and the devastating impact it has on the health sector.  Thus, the coronavirus pandemic has simply strained already decimated healthcare systems, with iniefficient and inequitable services, especially for the most poor and marginalized in society.  The sums that get “lost” in the health sector due to bribes and embezzlement are enormous.  According to some sources, this “loss” is estimated as equivalent to 10% of total health expenditures globally –that is, $500,000,000,000.

As if this were not enough, the pandemic itself acts as a breeding ground for an even greater abuse of power and the public trust, something which should not surprise us.  A report by the NGO Transparency International reveals cases of embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, and fraud healthcare bidding processes in several countries in excess of $1,000,000,000, although these estimates do not fully reflect the enormous social harm of a culture of corruption.

The events in Peru and Argentina have provoked a strong social backlash.  Administrative and judicial investigations have been opened for the purpose of determining whom among those involved should be held responsible.  Nonetheless, while such acts deserve our strongest disapproval and a call for justice, they should also lead to a profound reflection on the cultural and moral background in which these cases took place in our societies.

Firstly, it must be recognized that we are not dealing with isolated and exceptional incidents of corruption.  While they certainly take place within the very special context of a pandemic and are extreme instances of “robbery” committed against the community (dealing with matters of life and death), they remain a reflection of a social practice or norm which persists in many areas and layers of society.  This preferential treatment, or cronyism, which even implies a violation of the law with impunity, constitutes normal and acceptable conduct for many.  Doesn’t everybody use influence, privileges, and inside connections in order to get a job or promotion, a benefit, a scholarship, to evade a fine or taxes, to seek a favorable legal outcome, and in so many other situations in which one’s private interest is put before the interest of the community, even if it means breaking the law?

This favoritism (or personalism, as some scholars call it) is deeply rooted in Latin American societies.  With reference to this phenomenon in Mexico, the sociologist sociologist Genaro Zalpa characterizes it as a real system, one maintained by cultural variables of loyalty, trust, and friendship, and as one with which many people and employees see nothing wrong, nor do they think of it as being corrupt.  It should not surprise us then that there are political leaders and other social actors who do not conceive of this as a serious violation of the public trust.

This preferential treatment –“favors,” “accommodations,” and “inside deals”– permeates the public and social spheres and does not seem to be a new phenomenon nor one affecting only one sector of the population.  As a society and as citizens we must ask ourselves to what extent we are complicit in and/or tolerant of this cronyism or favoritism in our social relations.  Do we seek out or accept situations of this sort, even when it means breaking the law?

Secondly, we must raise our awareness of the injustice and the enormes costs to society of these practices of preferential treatment.  A communty that promotes, facilitates, and tolerates this culture of cronyism and favoritism only impoverishes itself and retards its own development.  At the same time, these practices erode trust in people and institutions, which is a key and essential element in improving the well-being of societies.  It is no coincidence that Latin American countries show some of the lowest levels of generalized trust in the world.

Lastly, recognizing this social reality and its costs, we must ask ourselves how we can get out of this social dilemma, out of this vicious circle.  What is certain is that we are not going to achieve it merely by passing new laws, nor by creating new institutions nor mechanisms of control.  Nor is it enough to simply have a minister and a few collaborators resign.  Given the problem we are facing, we need to internalize an ethic of anticorruption that reaches the entire citizenry.  We need leaders who live out and promote values of imparciality public honesty and civic ethic that prioritizes the development of young people in our schools and religious communities.  And, finally, we must take personal and collective responsiblity for changing a culture of privilege and accommodations in our quest to promote equity and merit.

This is a matter of justice, social solidarity, and loving our neighbor.

Roberto Laver is an attorney, international consultant, and scholar.  He has served as counsel to the World Bank in Washington DC, as a researcher at Harvard University, and as an adjunct professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston.