Why you should care
As the region deals with a sprawling corruption scandal, Fernando Martinez Cure questions its ethical core.
It’s a violent sound. Fernando Martinez Cure pushes the “on” button, and a blender shakes and howls. The recipe is one egg, two kinds of oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. Looking for signs of a bureaucrat — tie, black leather shoes, notebooks — I find none. Nothing about this 30-year-old from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, his wild, unkempt black hair and his constant vulgarities, spells out I’m a government official. But he is one. And yet, from a rocking chair in his living room, or from his office when he’s “supposed to be working,” Martinez Cure ambushes the ethical conventions of life around him.
“These micro-corruptions!” he groans, stopping the blender for just a minute. “Like printing shit from the office for personal reasons. It’s super micro. It’s super stupid … I know. But you’re wasting taxpayer money.” While Colombian voters weigh in on Sunday on citizen-driven anti-corruption bills, Martinez Cure is saying measures aimed at cleaning up government should at least be put on par with individual responsibility.
“Start looking at yourself!” he yells at me. “Because if you can put the line wherever you want, then why can’t others? Why are you the guy who knows where to draw the line?”
We should judge ourselves more than politicians.
Fernando Martinez Cure
The son of two “very rational” engineers from the Caribbean, Martinez Cure today runs a think tank within Colombia’s development ministry. By day, he manages a team of 80 who research the contours of poverty and then try to fix it on the ground. Colombia’s severe inequality is a key component of his country’s cyclical patterns of violence. It cut short the lives of 230,000 during five decades of armed conflict. In 2011, the government started to rethink poverty in a multidimensional way. Since then, poverty has fallen from 29 percent to 17 percent. Martinez Cure’s team reaches 400,000 people, making him one of the top brains behind the country’s fight against inequality.
But poverty is married to corruption. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer finds that the poorest are hit hardest by it, with impoverished people in Mexico spending one-third of their income paying bribes. This is why Martinez Cure reaches beyond wonk and stabs at the ethical problems he sees around him through his polemic, contrarian writing for a fledgling, independent publication called Ciudad Paz (or City of Peace). Most people, in Martinez Cure’s view, put the onus of ethical behavior on the politician. He wants to flip that onus around and push it back on the people who are voting them in. “I want people to feel more responsible,” he explains. “We should judge ourselves more than politicians.”
Corruption is driving Martinez Cure — and Latin America — mad. Over the past three years, an octopus-like affair called the Car Wash scandal spread its tentacles across the region from one of Brazil’s biggest construction firms. Latin America has dealt with corruption for a long time, but earlier this year, Car Wash swallowed up Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Popular ex-president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was next to get eaten. In Colombia, it’s almost comical. Last year, an anti-corruption official named Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera was arrested. On what charge?
The abuse of power for personal gain is dominating electoral conversations around Latin America this year. Brazil, Colombia and Peru tie for the rank of 96 out of 180 countries for public sector corruption, and Mexico is No. 135, according to Transparency International’s index. Don’t even ask about Venezuela.
Ethics expert Javier Dario Restrepo traces the corruption mindset to the conquistadors. “Spanish missionary teachings made ethics seem imposed from the outside and sacrificed their essential value: the freedom of decision that lets each person legislate their own self,” Restrepo says. It’s the same reason why Martinez Cure wants the focus to turn away from politicians — who represent the power of what Restrepo calls “the outside” — and be directed instead toward everyday people doing everyday things.
The bureaucrat’s idea for beating corruption is simple but elegant: Push moral dilemmas into local hands. Martinez Cure wants to make each micro action subject to local community pressure and debate. “Take budgeting … it needs to be participatory, local, more decentralized,” he says, while recognizing that his professional viewpoint as part of the centralized planning ministry conflicts with his personal one. He sees himself one day molding policy and methodology at a large international development organization. Meanwhile, he’ll keep jousting through his essays, publishing anywhere he can.
There’s something hilarious, spontaneous and efficient about Martinez Cure’s manner. His friend Juan Carlos Peña remembers him as the ratty-haired university student with a cloud of cigarette smoke following him around who “doesn’t do formality.” He’s worked and studied in Africa, Brazil and Europe. His English sounds like a cross between West Coast skater and profane Wall Street trader.
The self-described left-wing libertarian points me toward a dilapidated pier not far from the city of Barranquilla, where he says he grew up as “a brat” with “lots of cockroaches in my head I’ve had to kill.” This port is where his Lebanese grandfather stepped off a boat in 1929 looking for a fresh start in “America.” “Think of the randomness. … In a way that makes me someone from everywhere,” says Martinez Cure of his roots.
For all his wit, however, Martinez Cure’s incessant debate over values and principles can seem annoying. “He’s so principled he can be stubborn,” says Bernardo Brigard, a government official who formerly worked under him, recalling endless meetings when Martinez Cure obsessed over the meta level of the matter at hand.
Martinez Cure knows that getting people to redesign their ethical insides is no easy feat. “I think we’re lazy,” he says, stopping the blender and sticking his fingertip into the yellow slime. He tastes it. “We see things like cutting the line at the bank or printing personal stuff on taxpayers’ paper as so far away from us,” he says, widening his hands to illustrate some kind of infinitely expanding distance, framing a watermelon-slice graphic T-shirt that bounces on his cracker-barrel torso. “And that’s a recipe for corruption.”
Maybe that’s why Martinez Cure sticks to questioning (and often defying) conventions when he has the control. He spins around and hands me a crust of bread, dripping with the mayonnaise he’s just made. He stares at me, like, Your move. Sure, it’s just a crust of bread, but accepting a gift from a source technically goes against journalistic ethics, another Martinez Cure moral drama arising from life’s mundane moments.