When Arnoldo Alemán took office as President of Nicaragua in 1997, he seemed ready to make history. He had defeated Daniel Ortega, longtime leader of the Sandinista Front, and vowed to lead his long-suffering country toward democracy and prosperity. Now it is likely that he will be remembered for something very different. He may become the first ex-president of a Latin American country to be sentenced to prison for corruption while in office.
The story of Alemán’s rise to power follows a familiar Latin American pattern. He maneuvered his way into politics through skillful back-room deals. His ebullient campaign style helped him win the presidency, and as soon as he took office he began to loot the national treasury. What has happened to him since he left office, however, is not only unfamiliar but unheard-of. His successor, President Enrique Bolaños, has denounced him as a thief. Newspapers have published damning evidence against him. A judge has placed him under house arrest, and prosecutors are asking that he be sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
Latin America is poor for a variety of reasons, but corruption is one of the most persistent and insidious. It is so deeply ingrained in the political culture that many people take it as a force of nature, like bad weather. In several countries, cabinet ministers and other second-level figures have been convicted and even imprisoned after leaving their public posts, but it has never happened to a former president. The immunity of ex-presidents is a deeply entrenched law of Latin American politics. In recent years, serious charges of corruption have been made against presidents of Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, but none of these countries has dared to throw any of them into jail. If Nicaragua does so, it will send a message across the continent that could reshape Latin American politics and preserve for the poor untold millions of dollars that would otherwise have been stolen.
The drama unfolding in Nicaragua is the most striking example of a new awareness that is slowly spreading throughout the world. During the cold war, the United States and other powerful countries tolerated the corruption of their third-world clients, just as they tolerated grotesque human rights abuses. Beginning in the late 1970s, generals and dictators who abused human rights began to realize that they could be held accountable by the courts. The same is now starting to happen to corrupt politicians. Corruption still thrives, just as do torture, repression, and political murder, but it can no longer be practiced with impunity, as it once was. Presidents and prime ministers who steal public funds now know that they may have to pay for their crimes. This is something new and profoundly important.
Part of the rising demand for honesty in government comes from private groups like the Berlin-based Transparency International, which rates countries according to their degree of official corruption (Nicaragua ranked eighty-first out of 102 surveyed last year) and helps governments devise ways to …