Senate Chairman Upholds Tradition of Treating Brazil with Contempt

Brazilian senator Sibá Machado, president of the Ethics Committee

At the time of writing we are watching a familiar scene – the chairman of the
Brazilian Senate on the verge of resigning after being shown to be unfit to hold
the fourth highest constitutional position in the land. Renan Calheiros is
fighting to the last to hold onto his power and prerogatives and showing not a
shred of shame or guilt for the contemptuous way he has treated the office he
holds and the people he is supposed to represent.

He is going the same way as some of his predecessors – Antonio Carlos Magalhães and Jader Barbalho – who stepped down over scandals. Since this is Brazil, where no politician ever need fear punishment, both these politicians are still active, as is another former Senate chairman (and President of Brazil) José Sarney, some of whose activities have also been questionable.


Another former President, Fernando Collor, who resigned as he was about to be impeached by the Senate in 1992, is now a member of that very body.


The latest affair arose when it was revealed that Calheiros (PMDB) had a daughter with a journalist, Monica Veloso, with whom he had had an affair. This was not news but the odd way he paid monthly child allowance was – in cash through an employee of a construction company which has won many contracts in his northeastern home state of Alagoas (incidentally, Collor’s home state too).


He was also alleged to be friendly with a businessman called Zuleido Veras, accused of corruption and fraud. Calheiros, who is married, reacted with indignation and claimed that his personal life was of no interest to anyone and did not interfere with his running of the Senate.


Despite this, he was forced into providing documentary evidence to show that everything had been above board. He justified the high monthly amounts of the payments – which varied between 9,000 reais to 12,000 reais (about US$ 4,500 to US$ 6,000 respectively) and were higher than his salary at the time – by claiming to have sold cattle from some ranches he owns.


He also launched an offensive within the Senate and managed to get virtually all the members on his side apart from some leftist members who insisted he should step down temporarily and an inquiry be opened.


Fortunately for the long-suffering Brazilian public, his plans started to go wonky when the media uncovered many discrepancies, particularly an interview in Veja magazine with Monica Veloso who contradicted much of his story.


Calheiros was subsequently forced to order the Senate’s “ethics” committee to open an inquiry to see if he had broken parliamentary decorum. Not surprisingly, Calheiros – and the government which did not want the boat rocked – filled it with placemen.


The committee investigator, Epitácio Cafeteira, is an old Northeastern pal of Calheiros and Sarney with no credibility whatsoever. He said he believed all Calheiros’ documentation was in order and tried to wrap the affair up within a couple of days without even calling any witnesses.


The hearings were shown live on TV and people were able to see how Calheiros had insulted their intelligence by appointing such a bumbler to investigate. Cafeteira finally agreed to extend the hearing not because it was a matter of principle or responsibility to the electorate but because he claimed his wife had asked him to do so.   


Once again the media foiled this blatant attempt at a cover-up. The Rede Globo television network broadcast a program just as the committee was about to  shelf the case which showed that Calheiros’ story about selling the cattle looked highly suspicious. The figures appeared inflated, the buying companies did not exist in the form claimed and the receipts were unreliable.


New information has since come up on a daily basis to show that Calheiros is either a liar or the victim of an elaborate plot. The latest reports quote the Federal Police as saying some of the receipts appear to have been doctored.


The tide has now turned against Calheiros and some senior senators, such as Pedro Simon, also from the PMDB, have started calling for him to step down.


Calheiros says the word “quit” does not exist in his dictionary and he will fight to the end. This obviously means it is just a matter of time before he quits. His friends in the Senate will see that the case is eventually shelved and nothing will be done.


Can we expect a better performance from Calheiros’ replacement? Probably not. The reason why this case sent such jitters through the Senate was because Calheiros’ behavior is not unique. Many senators have been wary of casting stones to such an extent that when Cafeteira stood down as investigator, allegedly on health grounds, the committee had great difficulty finding a replacement.


Veja magazine columnist Andre Petry highlighted the situation when he quoted an anonymous Northeastern senator as saying:” The problem is that almost all senators have their Monica and Zuleido.”


Finally, if you want to see how history is whitewashed in Brazil, I suggest you visit the Senate site – www.senado.gov.br. On the home page you will see an illustrated link “Galeria dos Presidentes do Senado. Do Império à República”.


If you enter you can read all about the previous Senate chairmen, including Antonio Carlos Magalhães and Jader Barbalho. Their great achievements are listed but what you will not find is any reference to the reasons why they stood down.         


John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.


© John Fitzpatrick 2007

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