How today’s despots and kleptocrats hide their stolen wealth

Alex Cooley and Jason Sharman write: On Oct. 27, the vice president and heir apparent to the tiny oil-rich West African state of Equatorial Guinea was convicted in a Paris court of money laundering and embezzlement. At stake is Vice President Teodorin Obaing’s $200 million Paris mansion, a 220-foot yacht and a fleet of luxury cars, which according to the French authorities represent the proceeds of corruption from his country’s oil wealth. A week later, a massive data-dump from the offshore firm Appleby, the “Paradise Papers,” exposed the financial dealings of thousands of firms and individuals in small island tax havens from the Caribbean to the South Pacific.

Together, the Obiang case and the Paradise Papers seem to give us a new version of two standard stories. In the first, a strongman from an endemically corrupt Third World state steals from his already impoverished citizens to fund conspicuous consumption, while in the second, secretive tax havens hide the dubious funds of the rich and (in)famous. Developing countries like Equatorial Guinea are stigmatized by their poor performance in international rankings such as Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index, while the tax havens are increasingly taking flak from richer countries and international organizations. The international watchdogs and scholarly writings on the subject tend to suggest that corruption is a national, bordered phenomenon best assessed and countered on a state-by-state basis.

This is wrong. In our article “Transition Corruption and the Globalized Individual,” we argue that the conventional understanding of grand corruption is badly flawed and complacent. The real fight is against cross-border flows of tainted money and Western financial centers, which launder corrupt money and help people spend it. Instead of drawing a dichotomy between corrupt and clean countries, we should look at the role of transnational networks, which create a symbiotic relationship between the source countries of grand corruption and the destination host or haven countries that receive the loot. Kleptocracy is not just an initial act of theft, but also the subsequent ability of these corrupt leaders to legally reside in other countries where their wealth and property will be protected, and where they can enjoy their mansions and conspicuous consumption in cities such as London, Paris, New York and Geneva. [Continue reading…]

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