LATIN AMERICA

Public health corruption scandal smears Mujica’s party

Investigation of embezzlement scheme of hospital funds sullies Uruguay’s ruling party

Uruguayan President José Mujica.
Uruguayan President José Mujica.

One of Frente Amplio’s main achievements has been a marked improvement in the Uruguayan public healthcare system. Now the sector is in the middle of a scandal after one of its directors, the union leader Alfredo Silva, was arrested and indicted. The first findings of the investigation revealed a corruption scheme that has smeared the ruling party just months before the next presidential elections.

According to investigators, Silva and his accomplices used the influence of their public offices to outsource services to a company that they controlled, which led to significantly higher costs for the hospitals. According to testimonies, they took advantage of their roles as union leaders and charged bribes to set off or settle labor disputes.

The case is mostly built on what happened at Hospital Maciel, a medical center in Montevideo. Maciel made worldwide news in 2012 after it was discovered that some nurses had been killing older patients for at least seven years. While that case is still in court, a new investigation is looking into unwarranted cleaning bills and other irregularities that make up for $75,000 worth of misappropriated funds. The amount might seem small but it is vast in the context of the Uruguayan healthcare system, which provides medical attention to the poorest. The government has also made a large investment in this hospital.

Maciel is located in a 19th-century building in Ciudad Vieja, a poor part of the capital. It usually treats gravely ill patients, most of them elderly. It also serves many people from other departments around the country.

The spectacular arrest, interrogation and indictment of Alfredo Silva and nine other people set off a time bomb that the government could not deactivate in time. Silva, a leader in the national confederation of unions, Plenario Intersindical de Trabajadores – Convención Nacional de Trabajadores (PIT-CNT) – was named director of public health as a representative of the people. He had been stealing from the public for several years.

The investigation is looking into irregularities that make up for $75,000 worth of misappropriated funds

The anti-corruption committee, which works under the president’s office, warned against these irregularities in 2012 and there are many complaints and accusatory testimonies. But Frente Amplio chose to look the other way, upholding a barely legal and controversial alliance with the unions. Now PIT-CNT has dismissed Silva and condemned his conduct. The union of government workers, however, still supports him.

The national union confederation has been debating the virtues of defending workers’ rights and corporatism for years, especially when it comes to government workers.

Frente Amplio may pay for the scandal at the next presidential elections in October. Its candidate, the oncologist Tabaré Vázquez, who served as Uruguay’s first leftist president, laid down the foundations of the social security system that now exists in the country.

Vázquez reacted quickly to the news, saying: “There can be corruption in any administration. Frente Amplio administrations can make mistakes.”

But this time, his famous saying, which roughly translates to “we can make a mistake but not misappropriate,” may not be enough in a country where corruption cases are rare and met with little tolerance. The latest polls still say the leftist candidate is the favorite to win in October but he has lost some votes. Tabaré Vázquez is now facing an increasingly more difficult electoral campaign season.

Translation: Dyane Jean François