IRI Supports Documentary Film in Panama: “Kleptocracy: What Every Person Should Know”

  • Anna Downs, Luis Martinez
Promotional poster for the documentary.

Raising public awareness of kleptocracy and its corrosive effects is essential to shore up democracies worldwide. With this understanding, the International Republican Institute (IRI) funded the production of a documentary on kleptocracy in Panama in 2023 to introduce this relatively new concept to citizens and focus reform on local and transnational systems that enable high-level corruption in their country.

Transnational kleptocracy—or corruption at the highest levels of government at the expense of the people—is a threat to global security, prosperity, and democracy. It destabilizes states, creates fertile breeding grounds for terrorist groups and organized crime, and deprives people of hope for a safe or prosperous future. Kleptocracy emerged as a global phenomenon during the 20th century, facilitated by the increase of large-scale movements of financial and economic assets across borders. Kleptocrats and corrupt elites target and illegally capture public finances, commodities, natural resources, development and security assistance, the private sector, and strategic assets. In doing so, they amass vast amounts of wealth for personal gain and consolidate their political power at home and abroad.  

In recent years, bold investigative reporting, energetic civil society campaigns, and ambitious law enforcement actions have blown open the secretive world of global kleptocracy. Thanks to these efforts by groups such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist (ICIJ) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we possess a clearer understanding of the pervasive nature of this threat and the methods through which authoritarian regimes and their proxies can enable kleptocratic regimes. 

Globally, pro-democracy and transparency activists often face barriers to fully understand and coordinate to address the transnational dimensions of kleptocracy and its harmful local effects. To support the fight against kleptocracy, in 2020 IRI launched Transnational Responses Against Corruption and Kleptocracy (TRACK), an initiative to equip society, journalists, and government leaders around the world to support democratic institutions and fight elite corruption and state capture. Under the TRACK program, IRI has worked with anti-kleptocracy activists across South Asia and Latin America to form a common understanding of kleptocracy and to provide platforms for cooperation. Beginning in 2021, IRI has supported the creation and expansion of anti-kleptocracy networks in specifically Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.  

By visibly elevating the fight against kleptocracy to a priority commensurate with the threat it poses, political leaders and civil society organizations can work together to put highly corrupt, authoritarian regimes on notice. They can also engage populations within democratic societies who may be unaware of the pervasive harm caused by transnational corruption, while reengaging populations within authoritarian societies equally disillusioned by their own kleptocratic governments. 

In Panama, IRI supported Fundación Espacio Cívico (FEC), a local civil society organization who specializes on transparency and accountability advocacy, to produce an hour-long documentary titled “Kleptocracy: What Every Person Should Know.” It’s an exciting film that explains how kleptocracy works, why people should care about it, and how to achieve change through advocacy efforts.  

The story begins with Jose Alejandro Rodríguez, a young Afro-Panamanian who works everyday aiding minors in conflict with the law, and his inherent need to understand what kleptocracy is, what tactics kleptocrats implement, and how high-level corruption is connected to criminal networks. Along the way he manages to have in-depth conversations with experts from Panama: lawyers, journalists, political scientists, representatives of international organizations and civil society, as well as the Nation’s General Attorney, among many others.  

This film was screened to the public on March 23, 2023, with the support of IRI in Panama and was well received by the audience, which included prominent national anti-corruption champions.  The full documentary is available on YouTube and has accumulated over 6,000 views to-date. Although the film is in Spanish, a trailer with English subtitles is available on FEC’s Twitter page.  

Post-screening, the documentary has received widespread media coverage in Panama, Latin America, and even Europe, including articles in La Prensa, Ellas, La Vanguardia, Yahoo News, and MiDiario, as well as interview and debate spots on national TV networks such as Telemetro and TVN. Post-documentary, IRI is continuing to work with partners in Panama and throughout Latin America and South Asia to spread awareness of kleptocracy and build anti-kleptocracy coalitions so that together, we can challenge systemic corruption and strengthen global democratic governance. 

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