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Senate Spits in the Face of the Brazilian People

Cover of Brazilian magazine Veja with Renan Calheiros

Brazil’s senators showed their contempt for the people who elected them by
spitting in their faces when they absolved the chairman, Renan Calheiros, of
unparliamentarily procedure on September 12.  The entire 81-member Senate
turned up and voted by 40 votes to 35, with six abstentions, not to accept the
recommendation of its own ethics committee and force Calheiros to stand down
over allegations that his personal expenses had been paid by a lobbyist for a
construction company. 

This vote flew in the face of credible evidence that Calheiros had not only used the lobbyist but had secretly acquired control of two radio stations and had also intervened to help a brewer gain tax benefits.


The 40 Senators who voted for Calheiros must be the only people in the whole country who accept his unconvincing explanations and condone the unscrupulous methods he has used to cling onto power.


Parallels have been drawn with the 40 Senators and the 40 Thieves, with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the role of Ali Baba. This is a fair comparison, confirmed by the abstentions of PT Senators who saved Calheiros.


Calheiros’ triumph could be short-lived as he still faces at least two other charges from the ethics committee over his shady business activities. It is difficult to see him holding on much further and the likeliest outcome is that he will stand down, maintain his position as a Senator and rely on a team of lawyers to fend off any attempts to bring him to court.


The idea that he will be punished in the form of a jail sentence, a hefty fine and/or the confiscation of his gains is inconceivable in a country like Brazil where politicians are coated in Teflon. A deal will be done, he will maintain a low profile for a while then bounce back, as so many of his colleagues have done.


Fernando Collor, Antonio Palocci, the late Antonio Carlos Magalhães and Jader Barbalho are examples. In fact, one of Calheiros’ main advisers is Barbalho, ex-chairman of the Senate, who stood down in 2001 when faced with allegations that he had illegally amassed 35 million reais (around US$ 17.5 million) during his political career.  By standing down, rather than being forced out, Calheiros will be able to maintain his rights and stand again as a candidate for election.


PT Loses Its Ideals


We will probably never know all of those who voted for Calheiros because the vote was taken in secrecy but there is no doubt that Lula’s PT tipped the balance in favor of Calheiros who is from the PMDB party, the main ally of Lula’s government. This was another example of how the PT has forgotten its ideals and is now just another amorphous political grouping which is prepared to make a deal with any other party or group in order to share political power.


Calheiros is an all too familiar figure – a man of modest background from the Northeast who has built up a personal fortune during his political life and used his influence in Brasília to benefit himself, his family and friends.


He showed his true face when he made veiled threats against two other Senators by name, letting them know that he could leak information about them. He also called for a congressional inquiry to be opened against the company that owns Veja magazine, which broke the scandal in May, and accused him of acting illegally in a business deal.


The Veja report showed that Calheiros, a married man, had been paying an allowance through the lobbyist to a journalist with whom he had had a child. The amount was out of proportion to his salary as a Senator and Calheiros claimed he had paid from the sale of cattle.


This explanation fooled no one and inquiries showed that many of the bills he presented to back up his claim were phony and inflated. His inability to clear his name led to the opening of a number of inquiries, both within the Senate and by the police.


Like Barbalho, José Sarney and ACM, Calheiros is exactly the kind of figure the PT has always said it opposed and blamed for the social inequalities in Brazil, particularly the Northeast where Lula was born. In practice, Lula has been happy to sit down and do business with them.


Ironically, this affair would never have reached this stage had it not been for a group of former PT members, now with the PSOL party, who Lula threw out of the PT because they had refused to vote with his government on certain issues.


The two main opposition parties – the PSDB and DEM (ex-PFL) – let the PSOL set the pace and entered the fray too late. There is a widely held view that many Senators did not want to upset the status quo as they too have their secrets which they do not want appearing in the press.


The PSDB and DEM now say they will not cooperate with the government while Calheiros remains in charge. Lula will have to take this threat seriously because the Senate has to approve various measures to get the budget ready. The most important is the extension of the CPMF tax on financial transactions which bring the government around 40 billion reais (about US$ 20 billion) in revenues.


When this tax was introduced 10 years ago it was supposed to be a temporary measure, but governments of all stripes have come to rely on it. Reports say that the government is working behind the scenes to break this logjam and come up with a solution which will basically let Calheiros off the hook, appoint the vice-chairman who is from the PT as the new Senate leader, and allow the opposition to claim a victory.


As for the Brazilian people whose faces have been spat on, do they care? It seems not. There have been a few scattered protests, usually involving students, but the majority of people are not interested or know nothing about the affair.


A pathetic attempt was made by a group of São Paulo socialites and so-called celebrities to form a protest group under the uninspiring name of “Cansei” (“I’m Fed Up”) but its “rallies” were an embarrassing failure.


The organized left-wing groups, like the MST landless peasant movement, and the trade unions, which could put tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets, are only interested in their own causes and not democracy. 


For example, the postal workers have started a strike aimed at boosting their wages by almost 100% and hiring tens of thousands of extra staff.


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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