A poll by Berlin-based Transparency International with
international businessmen from around the world has shown Brazil among
the 15 most corrupt nations in the world. As often as they can get away
with it, Brazilian politicians — many of them anyway — use the machine
of the state to advance their own business and help friends and relatives.
And despite several efforts to clean the air, bribes, embezzlement, and
nepotism are still too common and accepted by society in general as the
price of doing business.
By Katheryn Gallant
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
The Collor Charm
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
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
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."
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