Argentina has lost ground in the fight against corruption.
Against the advances in transparency seen in the European Union, Latin America and even some tax havens, Argentina hasn’t even maintained the status quo. It made things worse. Argentina amended its existing regulation, eliminating most of the transparency demands for foreign companies. This creates a very poor image for the country currently leading the G20’s anti-corruption working group. This responsibility falls in the hands of the Buenos Aires companies register, the Inspección General de Justicia (IGJ).
This agency is essential to the functioning of the economy. It is also relevant for identifying responsible figures when companies are involved in financial crimes.
As a result of the Panama Papers’ scandal of 2016, the European Union required all Member States to implement public registers of “beneficial owners”: that is, of those persons ultimately in control and benefitting from European companies. The United Kingdom and Denmark have already established such registers, where information is available for free online. This means that anyone can verify online who is behind British and Danish companies that won bids for government contracts or own real-estate. The UK decided to extend this requirement to its overseas territories, including the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands. In Latin America, Brazil, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Peru and the Dominican Republic already have laws requiring beneficial ownership registration.
In Argentina, civil society organizations such as the Tax Justice Network and Fundación SES, along with the Prosecutor for Economic Crimes and Money Laundering (PROCELAC) of Argentina’s Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público Fiscal) have been co-organizing over the last four years an event to promote the establishment of a central, free, public online registry of “beneficial owners” for all Argentine companies. Such a registry would ensure that true business owners are known to prevent them from engaging in corruption or money laundering. This event, which included as speakers investigative journalists, NGOs, the private sector, and officials from Argentina’s main government agencies, has arrived at the conclusion that greater information is required from the IGJ in order to improve investigations about economic crime. This year, Laura Alonso, head of Argentina’s Anti-Corruption Office, opened the event calling for Argentina to establish this register of beneficial owners in order to facilitate her office’s work.
The IGJ maintains that it cannot change the law, but only apply it. It therefore still does not provide easy, fast, online access to information about shareholders and beneficial owners of Argentine companies. However, something changed in August of this year, but for the worse. The IGJ approved General Resolution 6/2018, facilitating market entrance for offshore companies by demanding less requirements than before, particularly about disclosing shareholder information.
Although the resolution was approved under the program for process simplification (state de-bureaucratization), one is left to ask: Why must simplification be synonymous with secrecy? If we are dealing with legitimate businesses, revealing the true owners of these businesses should not represent a problem or a disincentive to investments.
It was to be expected that the notebooks scandal added to Argentina’s presidency of the G20 would demonstrate our country’s leadership in the fight against corruption, or at least a greater alignment with the global trend towards greater transparency, as indicated by President Mauricio Macri in August of this year at the opening of the C20 (the civil society platform parallel to the G20). Instead, the IGJ responds with greater secrecy. What else is necessary for Argentina to finally take a firm step towards transparency?