Corruption is hardly unique to Brazil. In its many forms — from nepotism to bribery to embezzlement — the gentle art of getting a financial profit from power has flourished in almost every nation that has ever existed. Brazil, however, has been perceived as more lax than most other nations about venality in their leaders. A notorious example was that of Adhemar de Barros, who served as mayor and governor of São Paulo during the 1950s and '60s. Forthright about his profiteering from the public works projects that he endorsed, Adhemar allowed his supporters to successfully defend him with the motto "Rouba mas faz" (he steals, but he achieves).
Other politicians with more demure public images were suspected of equally shady maneuvers. According to '50s and '60s-era rumor mills, Juscelino Kubitschek allegedly bought thousands of hectares of cheap land in a remote region of the central state of Goiás. After his election to the presidency in 1955, Kubitschek vowed to move the capital of Brazil to the nation's geographic center. It seemed impractical, since the geographical center of Brazil was in a part of Goiás so isolated that building supplies had to be airlifted. Even in the middle of the 20th century, the future site of Brasília did not even have dirt roads linking it with the outside world. At least a few people surmised that Kubitschek had benefited from selling some of his own land to the federal government. Although Kubitschek became significantly wealthier during his presidency, historians do not believe that he ever owned the land on which Brasília was built.
According to a 1996 poll by Berlin-based Transparency International, international business people believe that Brazil is one of the 15 most corrupt nations in the world. To make the study, reports from financial organizations were used. Of the 41 nations surveyed, New Zealand was considered the least corrupt. (In that country, the governor of the Central Bank can be fired for harming the nation if inflation exceeds 2 percent a year.)
In a May 1996 issue of the Mexican weekly newsmagazine El Economista, journalist Josefina Vázquez Mota described the perfect milieu for crooked politics. "When a state has a large quantity of enterprises, many regulations and a heavy burden of expenses and taxes, a propitious atmosphere is created to obtain the lucre of governmental corruption. Corruption flourishes where there is a combination of monopoly, plus official discretion, minus transparency."
"The first step in controlling corruption would be to completely fulfill existing laws … although controlling corruption means reforming systems. It is a long-term project, a job that must involve the government officials themselves, the private sector, the press and the many institutions of civil society," Vázquez Mota added.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Since 1984, Cândido Vaccarezza has been employed as a doctor for the city of São Paulo. He earns $1200 a month, but only comes to City Hall to sign in. Is he a dedicated physician who spends his time in favela (shanty town) clinics immunizing and healing people who cannot afford other medical care? Think again. Vaccarezza actually works hard for the PT (Partido Trabalhista — Workers' Party) as its secretary-general. The third-highest member in the party's hierarchy, Vaccarezza earns $2,128 monthly. Daily Folha de São Paulo discovered in late December 1996 that taxpayers were paying for a public servant who preferred to spend his time taking care of politics. Caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Vaccarezza tried to vindicate himself. "I am not a ghost [i.e., a person who does not work despite having a civil-service sinecure]. I work 14 hours a day for the party."
Earning a living without working is a habit that most political parties have sponsored for some of their activists. Cases similar to Vaccarezza's are common. For example, the headquarters of the PMDB in Brasília employs 15 moonlighting civil servants, eight of which are members of congressional staffs. The Partido Liberal (Liberal Party) has five civil servants working at party headquarters. Two of them were hired by Congress and lent to the party. As often as they can get away with it, Brazilian politicians aim to make taxpayers take responsibility for politicians' power structures or political perks. The Vaccarezza affair is a sign that the PT, which has prided itself on being above the favoritism and slightly shady jeitinhos endemic to Brazilian political culture for centuries, now seems comfortable with them.
Severino Marcondes Meira, a judge of the Regional Labor Court of Paraná, must be a real family man. Unlike most people in the work force, the 54-year-old Meira has no work-family conflicts. The judge does not hear court cases by telecommuting from a home office. He stays close to his folks using the old-fashioned way: nepotism. A total of 63 relatives — wife, children, nephews, nieces, cousins and daughters-in-law — are on the court's staff . Each month, the various members of the Meira clan bring home a total of almost $250,000. 10 percent of the court's total payroll is earmarked for Hizzoner's kin. Although the Meiras' average income per person is $4000 a month, the judge gives the highest salaries — $5200 monthly — to his wife and four adult children.
The reign of Brazil's king of nepotism may soon end. On December 26 of last year, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed a law that prohibits employees of federal courts to be coworkers of relatives "up to the third degree" (which would include parents, spouses, children, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, first cousins, nephews and nieces, as well as in-laws or step-relatives in those categories). The new law affects federal courts and the Supreme Court, but not the equally nepotism-ridden state courts.
When Congressman Fernando Lyra, a member of the PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party) from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, added this regulation to a Supreme Court-sponsored bill about salary and budget schedules, it seems to have gone unnoticed. It is still not certain if the law will force current beneficiaries of nepotism — like the Meira family — to leave their jobs or whether relatives already on the federal courts' payrolls will be allowed to stay there.
Many high-ranking Brazilian public servants in all branches of government employ family members. President Cardoso is no exception. After becoming President in 1995, he arranged that his daughter Luciana become his private secretary in the Palácio do Planalto (where the presidential offices are located). Sepúlveda Pertence, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, thinks that the nepotism law did not go far enough. "Those measures should also affect the legislative and executive branches," he told weekly newsmagazine Veja.
Pertence may have to wait a while for that dream to become true. Although Congress was quick to ban nepotism from the federal judiciary, it is less eager to end its own habit of hiring relatives. In October 1996, Senator Roberto Freire introduced a bill that would prohibit the hiring of relatives in all three branches of the federal government. After passing in the Senate, the bill was shelved in the Chamber of Deputies. The Lower House of Congress replaced it with another bill that mentioned ending nepotism as an administrative reform that would occur at an unknown date in the future.
THE LORDS OF THE LAND
The members of both houses of Congress are also not in a hurry to give up other perks of power. With a salary of $8000 a month for a three-day workweek, deputies and senators have the right to free apartments, plane trips, phone calls and postage. In addition to their salaries, the legislators also receive between $10,000 to $13,000 a month to employ up to 16 staff members.
When members of Congress retire — whether willingly or not — their golden years can be quite comfortable indeed. After serving for just eight years, deputies and senators can receive pensions from the Congressional Social Welfare Institute (IPC). The retirement checks begin at $2080 monthly, but can go as high as $8000 a month for legislators who have served for 30 years in government.
Another old tradition of Brazilian politics is coronelismo. A coronel (colonel) in this context is not an army officer, but a wealthy landowner who can bribe, manipulate and pressure the local electorate to vote for the candidates he chooses. Although many rural landowners in the 19th and early 20th centuries were honorary colonels of the militia regiment in their districts, few rural landowners today are members of the military. Coronelismo is not as obsolete as one might suspect. It still flourishes in isolated and impoverished regions of the Brazilian countryside. This encompasses much of Brazil's rural North and Northeast, but also includes poverty-stricken portions of the more developed southeastern and southern regions.
In the Vale do Jequitinhonha, a Portugal-sized quadrant in the northeastern corner of Minas Gerais, millionaire rancher Pedro Emílio Almeida Peixoto is a man to deal with. This is not only due to Peixoto's inherited fortune of $20 million, which comprises of 18,000 hectares of land, 7000 cows and 300 Arabian horses. It has even less to do with his 240-pound frame.
Peixoto is part of a close-knit and powerful group of 12 families that maintain an economic empire in the Vale do Jequitinhonha. Despite its one million inhabitants and its location in the affluent state of Minas Gerais, the valley is rich only in poverty indexes. Of every 1000 infants born in the valley, 58 die before their first birthday — a mortality rate 45 percent greater than the Brazilian average. Those who live to one year weigh 60 percent less than normal babies. Half of the population is illiterate, and a third of the valley's families receives only half of the minimum wage. With a diet based on a mush of manioc flour and water, almost two-thirds of the valley's inhabitants suffer from chronic malnutrition. The Jequitinhonha River, which flows through the valley, is dying because prospectors dig for gold and diamonds in the riverbed and leave mercury in its waters.
The influence of the valley's coronéis is based on two pillars: land and getting out the vote. This is exemplified in the history of the Cunha Peixotos, the most powerful family in the valley for at least a century. When the three Peixoto brothers arrived in the Vale do Jequitinhonha in 1890, they found a dense forest that they soon cut down. They gained their fortune selling expensive, high-quality wood. Within a decade of their arrival, one of the brothers already owned 50,000 hectares. President Juscelino Kubitschek was a good friend of a later generation of Peixoto coronéis and stayed at their ranches several times. The current head of the House of Peixoto does not find that being the grand seigneur is as enjoyable as his ancestors evidently found it. "Ranching is a vice," he told weekly newsmagazine Veja in an article published in May 1996. "We invest our whole life investing and don't earn money," Even so, he was planning to apply for a loan of $500,000 to begin irrigating his land to grow fruit.
Lacking competition, the monoculture-dependent landowners have less money than they did a decade ago. The town of Salto da Divisa, one of the poorest communities in the valley, which once had 90,000 head of cattle, now has 50,000. A contributing factor to this decline is the habit of dividing inheritances and lands among the (frequently numerous) heirs of deceased coronéis. This phenomenon is jocularly known as "family agrarian reform." As a result, the traditional bosses of the Vale do Jequitinhonha have less power than they had 30 years ago. The PT, which sees itself as the antithesis of coronelismo, now has one of its members as the mayor of the valley town of Itinga. It would be naïve, however, to assume that the reign of the colonels is nearing its end. Most city council elections, campaign financing, and even the selection of candidates remain under their control.
The new breed of coronel is more cosmopolitan and more open to change. With his M.D. from the University of São Paulo and internship at a hospital in London, Manoel Francisco Alves Silva had an assured career as a surgeon ahead of him. He preferred to return home and increase the lands and livestock inherited from his semiliterate father. Owner of 12 ranches (22,000 hectares in all) with 3500 head of cattle and 1200 head of buffalo, Silva is one of the richest men in his native Vale do Jequitinhonha. Silva also is the owner of the only radio station in his hometown of Almenara.
Since his homecoming, Silva has opened two hospitals, built a cachaça (sugar cane liquor) plant and cultivated the extreme south of the state of Bahia for housing developments. He has tripled his fortune, now estimated at 25 million dollars. "My secret is taking money from the bank to put it in production," he told weekly newsmagazine Veja. Despite his familiarity with the outside world, Silva is not tempted to settle down in the big city. His dream is to become the mayor of Almenara.
Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies)
Salary — $8000 a month, with an additional $8000 at year's end (the "13th salary").
Cost of living supplement — $8000, paid twice yearly.
Round-trip plane tickets — Four free tickets a month from Brasília to the capital of the state that the deputy represents.
Mail — Up to $692.50 worth of mail can be mailed for free each month.
Phone bills (office and home) — The government will pay up to $326.60 for deputies from the Federal District; up to $478.49 for deputies from Goiás (the state encircling the Federal District); or up to $6630.20 for deputies from other states.
Apartments — There are 432 apartments available at no charge for the 513 deputies. Those who do not live in the apartments receive a housing supplement of $1700 a month.
Salary — $8000 a month, with an additional $8000 at year's end
Cost of living supplement — $8000, paid twice yearly.
Round-trip plane tickets — Four free tickets a month from Brasília to the capital of the state that the senator represents.
Mail — The monthly mail allowance is in proportion with the number of inhabitants of the state that the senator represents (at least 4000, but no more than 66,200).
Phone bills (office) — The government will pay for an unlimited amount of phone calls from a senator's office.
Phone bills (home) — Up to $118 a month is paid for by the government.
Apartments — There are 72 apartments available at no charge for the 78 senators. Those who do not live in the apartments receive a housing supplement of $3000 a month.
Car — Senators are entitled to a car with chauffeur. The government will pay for up to 8 gallons of gasoline or 10 gallons of gasohol (gasoline and alcohol combination frequently used as fuel in Brazilian autos) each day.
Self-imposed exile apparently has benefited ex-President Fernando Collor de Mello, impeached in 1992 on corruption charges. Since August 1995, when he and his wife Rosane came to live in Miami, his popularity — at least among the Brazilian community in South Florida — has risen dramatically. Whenever he goes out, people recognize him. At a children's clothing store, while buying a present for a friend's newborn baby, a Brazilian customer asked for his autograph. At restaurants, shopping malls and even while in his car, the 47-year-old ex-President is recognized. Does the public insult or threaten him? "On the contrary," Collor told the Miami correspondent for weekly newsmagazine Veja in August 1996. "People go out of their way to greet me." This is not just an example of Collor's well-known braggadocio. "Collor came here a bit like an antihero, but little by little it's becoming chic to approach him," confirmed a Miami socialite who has met Brazil's former First Couple.
Unlike their years at the top of Brazil's political pyramid, the daily life of the Collors is now routine and even sedate. In the mornings, they have only one thing on their agenda: studying English. The ex-President already knew English fairly well when he arrived in Florida. Nevertheless, he wanted to improve it so that he could give lectures on political and economic topics to US audiences. "His English was very good, but he wanted to expand his vocabulary to have a more sophisticated way of speaking," said Ramón López, the director of the Berlitz Institute in Miami. Rosane is at a less advanced level, but does not let that discourage her. Like her husband, she commits herself to English lessons three times a week.
In the afternoons, Collor often goes to his office in the heart of Miami's financial district to answer letters and receive visitors. Named, naturally enough, "Collor's Office," the suite's rent is $3000 a month. "I admire the President's drive," his secretary, Angolan-born Fernanda Melo, told Veja. Rosane's afternoons are devoted to shopping at Miami's most elegant stores and showing off her new purchases to her friends.
When the Collors decide to spend a night on the town, their destination is frequently Prima Pasta. The restaurant's cozy atmosphere and moderate prices make it popular with paparazzi-fleeing celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Madonna, Jean-Claude Van Damme, UB-40 and the Bee Gees. "I only remember two important politicians coming here," Argentine-born Gerardo Gea, Prima Pasta's owner, told Veja. "One of them is Collor de Mello and the other is José Luis Manzano, an Argentine ex-Cabinet minister who ran out of Buenos Aires accused of corruption and came to live here in Miami. But that one went back not too long ago." Gea saw the difference in how other diners treated the disgraced politicians. "Whenever he came to the restaurant and ran across some Argentine, Manzano was persecuted. They pointed a finger at him and asked how I could allow a crook in my restaurant. With Collor, it's different. The Brazilians insist on greeting him."