The Lobbying Debate in Latin America

Lobby regulation is frequently recommended as an important measure that governments should implement to reduce corruption. However, that is not the case for Latin America where most citizens lack a basic understanding of the policy-making process. A change in citizens’ perceptions about lobbying activities is thus a prior necessity, especially considering the background of most countries in the region when it comes to corruption. 

What is Lobbying and Why is it Relevant? 

Lobbying is the representation of interests before policy-makers which involves different forms of communication with public officials. In this sense, a lobbyist is a professional responsible for interacting with government representatives, monitoring different aspects of the political process – regulatory acts of the executive branch, the bills under discussions in the parliament, and so on – in order to advocate in favor of a particular point of view regarding some public issues. It could be for an exclusive benefit to a group (e.g. a tax exemption for low-income workers) or a cause that could benefit the society in general (e.g. actions to reduce human impact on the environment). Lobbying permits different social groups , such as local associations, NGOs, business companies, banks, religious entities, unions, universities and think tanks, among others, to advocate for their own interests and highlight some particular aspect of the public policies being implemented in their jurisdiction. 

Even though it is routinely linked with corruption and other illegal practices, lobbying should not be seen as being the same as influence peddling or bribery. In fact, lobbying is an ordinary and  legitimate action in politics, related to the right to petition the government, which contributes to the dialogue between civil society and political institutions. 

Besides that, when different groups are able to engage in public policy discussions, the political process becomes more pluralistic, reflecting the cleavages that exist in society. Diversity and different interests have a crucial role in the development of pluralism, which is a fundamental aspect of liberal democratic systems. In this vein, lobbying could boost the representation of interests that  do not usually appear in the public agenda, as has already happened in Latin America with women’s rightsabortioncannabis legalizationanti-racism, people with disabilities, deforestation and LGBTI issues.  

Finally, lobbying could also help legislators address complex issues since they  do not have expertise in all the issues that are under consideration in  parliament which makes the contributions of lobbyists valuable to the improvement of public debate.  

Perceptions of Lobbying Among Citizens

Theoretically, lobbying could promote more diversity in the decision-making process. For Latin America however, the reality is that in society it is usually seen as illegal or inappropriate when someone tries to influence public officials or the policy-making process.  This perception of lobbying reflects distrust in institutions and high levels of corruption: 65% of people in the region think their government is run by private interests and only 21% have trust and confidence in their government. When asked about corruption in institutions, the citizens’ perception is also high. As figure 1 illustrates, the sum of “moderate” and “high” perception of corruption in some institutions, such as the Executive and Legislative Branch, is near 50%:

Figure 1 – Perception of the Level of Corruption in Latin American Institutions

The impression among people in the private sector also corroborates this vision: 47% believe their company has lost opportunities because of corruption, and 64% are aware of cases where companies, individuals, or government officials are being prosecuted for making or receiving an improper benefit.  

The region’s long history of corruption cases involving inappropriate relations between politicians and the private sector aggravates this situation. One emblematic example is that of Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction conglomerate. The company is under investigation for paying bribes to officials in exchange for construction projects in more than 9 countries in Latin America and in Africa (Angola and Mozambique).  

On one side, scandals like Odebrecht’s case elevated public discontentment. On the other side, it has led to an increased pressure for the creation of a more ethical relationship between the public and private sectors. This pressure has improved the government’s efforts to mitigate crime and has consequently led to an increase in the number of corrective actions and measures adopted by Latin American countries in order to improve transparency and reduce corruption have increased (figure 2). 

Figure 2 – Anti-corruption Measures Adopted by Latin American Countries

Likewise, the issue has gained unprecedented relevance in the private sector, with companies and lobbying firms developing compliance rules, ethical codes, and providing specialized training for its employees. These trends indicate that a positive change is occurring  in the behavior and relationships between officials and lobbyists.  

The Regulation of Lobbyism   

In Latin America, most of the countries have some sort of regulations that constrain indirect aspects of lobbying activities. The recurrent norms are codes of ethics for civil servants, transparency, and in regards to accessing public information (the table 1 indicates some of them):  

Table 1 – Anti-Corruption Measures Adopted by Latin American countries

Country Access to public information Public Procurement systems E-Government policy Money laundering legislation Political finance regulation
Argentina 2003 2001 2005 2000 2009
Bolivia 2005 2009 2001/2014 1997 2010
Brazil 2011 1993 2011 1998 1997
Chile 2008 2003 2007/2010 2003 2005
Colombia 2014 2012 2008 2000 2011
Costa Rica 2012 1995 2006 2002 2009
Dom. Rep. 2004 2012 2004 2002 1997
Ecuador 2004 2008 2003 2005 2009
El Salvador 2012 2014 2004 2000 2009/2013
Guatemala 2008 1992 2004 2001 2007
Honduras 2008 2001 2014 2002 2004
Mexico 2006 2009 2013 1996 2008/2014
Nicaragua 2007 2010 2010 2008 2000
Panama 2002 2006 2010 2015 2006
Paraguay 2014 2007 2013 1997 1996
Peru 2002 2014 2005 2002 2005
Uruguay 2008 2012 2006 2004 2009
Venezuela  2008 2001/2013 2005 2010

These kind of rules usually regulate the behavior of public servants by establishing prohibited conducts (such as the acceptance of gifts, travel and entertainment for officials) and specific procedures (such as legal hearings for public officials’, civil society and non-governmental members).  

However, only three countries have directly regulated lobbying activities. Peru and Chile have laws that affects both the executive and the legislative branches; and Mexico has addressed lobbying procedures for the legislative branch in the internal regiments of both houses of the parliament – “Cámara de Diputados” and the “Senado de la Republica”. Other countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Paraguay are also considering bills pertaining to lobbying.

In regulating lobbying activities in 2003 Peru became a pioneer in Latin America in the lobbyism field. Peru’s law 28024 defines that the management of interests (lobbying) occurs when legal persons or entities promote in a transparent manner, their point of view into the decision-making process. The lobbyists, defined as managers of interests, are not allowed to perform activities before government members with whom they have a kinship relationship. Besides that, the law establishes that lobbyists should register with the National Superintendence of Public Registries (Sunarp), the civil servants must then report to Sunarp when they are approached by lobbyists, and former officials must wait one year after resignation to act as a manager of interests. 

In Chile, the Law 20.730/2014 defines lobby as a paid activity carried out by legal persons or entities to represent, promote or defend some particular interest before public officials, It is mandatory for official authorities to publicize their agendas, and they should keep a register of gifts, benefits, or donations that they have received. All these registers must be available online. The law also establishes the necessity of lobbyists registration, as well as which actions by lobbyists and civil servants are considered to be inappropriate, prohibited and sanctionable.. 

In Mexico, the internal regiment of both houses of parliament define lobbying as the activity carried out before legislators in order to get some material or economic benefit. The norms also describe the conducts and prohibitions that lobbyists and legislators must obey. Some differences are that in the Chamber, it is mandatory for lobbyists to register themselves in a public register managed by the board of the house, and the committees have to publicize on the internet the drafts, position papers and other documents that they have received during lobbying activities. In the Senate, the internal regiment determined that both senators and the committees must report to the board of the house all lobbying activities that have been carried out before them. 

The Effectiveness of Lobbying Regulation Will Depend on Several Factors

The conclusions about these law’s effectiveness are still open for discussion. Peru has the most comprehensive regulation, but the country did not achieve much success with its implementation. Until 2017, only 22 lobbyists have registered and lobbying activities are still being conducted informally. The critics of Chilean and Mexican legislation point out that the norms create more constraints on the passive actors of lobbying (the public officials) rather than the lobbyists themselves.

Regulation could be either beneficial or not. In this case, it will depend on several factors. Firstly, the discussion itself surrounding regulation may become distorted since Latin American political culture does not consider lobbying as an intrinsic element of democracy. Without more clarification, lobbying regulation could become a synonym for prohibition, which will not change the fact that policy-makers will be influenced somehow. Citizens’ need to be educated about the policy-making process as well as the importance of civil society groups’ participation in the political process and their interaction with political authorities. 

Secondly, institution reform should be guided by a more holistic approach. The regulation of lobbying usually aims to improve the transparency of government actions, which is as fundamental as society’s participation in the political process. Besides transparency, a good regulatory framework should foster changes that provide better conditions to groups, especially the most disadvantaged, to participate in the decision-making process. As it was presented, the current regulations (in Chile, Paraguay and in Mexico) focus mostly on lobbyists registration.

Finally, lobbying must be demystified and disassociated from corruption. This corruption issue is not due to the lack of lobbying legislation. As a matter of fact, the majority of countries have rules that penalize corruption practices, such as influence peddling or bribery. In this vein, it is worth noting the private sector companies’ recent efforts to mitigate the risks of inappropriate relations of their members with the public sector, which illustrates that part of the solution should be provided from outside the state, with civil organizations acknowledging their role and organizing themselves.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Lincoln Telhado
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Lincoln Telhado is a government relations specialist based in Brasilia, Brazil. He received a master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Brasilia. His research interests include accountability and democratic institutions, and policy diffusion in Latin America, with a special focus on Brazil.

Categories: Politics

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