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Brazilians Let Politicians Treat Them as Doormats

São Paulo, Brazil Gay Pride Parade

Brazil has been a full democracy for over 20 years now and there is no threat
of any return to  military rule. However, the blatant disdain for the law
and contempt for the public shown by some  leading politicians could pose a
threat to democracy if it is not checked.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian people and their political parties, trade unions, professional bodies and churches are standing by and allowing corrupt politicians to walk all over them. There are no signs that  people are prepared to take to the streets to get rid of the worst culprits.


These include the Senate chairman, Renan Calheiros, whose desperate attempts to cling to office are producing so many fresh scandals that you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no such creature as an honest politician in Brazil.


It is not often that I agree with the people who write letters to the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. They are overwhelmingly middle-class whingers, constantly moaning about President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his government, the MST landless peasant movement, Greenpeace, the International Monetary Fund, George Bush, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, amongst others.


I was, therefore, astonished to find the following letter in the July 9 edition. I doubt if any foreigner would have had the nerve to write this letter and the correspondent is to be congratulated for his honesty.


This is a free translation: “When I saw the photo of thousands of Colombians who took to the streets to protest against guerrillas who have been responsible for the deaths of a number of kidnap victims, I felt ashamed. The Colombian example is normal in other Latin American countries and I feel ashamed because we Brazilians only know how to take to the streets to dance at Carnaval time and welcome back football teams.


“If a protest was to be arranged against all the filth and corruption that rules our politics, we would not be able to get more than a half a dozen oddballs together. We are a country of cowards and punchbags ready to accept anything. We only have the courage to protest through newspapers, as I am doing, making life easy for demagogues like Lula. As long as we remain like this, we will continue to be at the mercy of the Renans, Malufs, Jaderes, Sarneys, Lulas, ACMs and others like them.”    


The sad truth is that people are so shell shocked by the scandals involving politicians that they do not care any more. Since the “bribes for votes” scandal, known as the mensalão, broke in June 2005, we have experienced scores of similar events. I will not list them as there are simply too many but they have involved politicians from virtually every party and destroyed any idea that Lula’s Workers Party (PT) was more ethically-minded than the other parties which emerged or re-emerged from the days of the military.


A number of senior government ministers and PT leaders have lost their positions and it is almost unbelievable that Lula not only remained unscathed but was re-elected by such a wide margin.


Although people like José Dirceu, Lula’s former chief of staff, Antonio Palocci, the ex-finance minister, and the former PTB leader, Roberto Jefferson, lost their positions, not a single politician has been convicted and punished.


Dirceu and Jefferson lost their seats and some political rights for eight years but they are still active and campaigns are underway to overturn the decisions. The current scandal concerns allegations that Calheiros has amassed a personal fortune by doing favors for companies in return for kickbacks.


The case against him is rock solid, backed by taped telephone conversations, statements by witnesses and documents. His defense has been unconvincing and contradictory and no-one believes a word he says.


However, despite this evidence, Renan’s colleagues – including none other than Lula – have been reluctant to tell him to renounce his office while an investigation gets underway. It is only now, more than a month into the scandal, that a significant number of senators are starting to speak out.


Even then, few have criticized the blatant way Calheiros has abused his powers to try and shelf the issue by making comments on the case in his position as Senate chairman and filling the so-called ethics committee with his buddies.


Ironically, the only politicians who have acted with any concern for the electorate – and echoed the views of the middle-class Estado de S. Paulo correspondents – have been the members of the extreme-left PSOL.


These were kicked out of the PT in the first year of Lula’s government for not supporting his administration. If they had not insisted in a Congressional investigation, Calheiros would still be sitting pretty.


It is inconceivable that Calheiros can retain power, particularly as his inept attempts to dodge the issue have merely caused him more problems. A shameful deal will be done which will remove him from his position but with his gains, cushy lifestyle and political rights intact.


He will continue to glide through the corridors of power and will feel no shame. He will be given an abraço (hug) by Lula the next time they meet and his colleagues will commiserate with him on his bad luck on being caught out. Life in Brasília will return to normal and the politicians will continue to look after themselves and their henchmen first and the electorate last.


It is easy to condemn these unprincipled politicians but, as the newspaper correspondent pointed, the electorate is allowing them to get away with it. When George Bush came to São Paulo in March, between 6,000 and 10,000 people demonstrated against him, depending on whose figures you believe.


When the Pope visited the city in May, an estimated two million attended the mass he celebrated. A month later, an estimated 3.5 million people took part in the São Paulo Gay Pride Day.


It seems that Brazilians are prepared to take to the streets to bash Bush, celebrate their faith and show their sexual tolerance yet they are not prepared to do so to stand up for their political rights.


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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