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Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves Are Alive and Well in Brazil These Days


Brazilian Congress in Brasília

Though officially Brazil abides by the Gregorian calendar, New Year kicks in
for most people just after the apotheotic (not so much in some cases) Carnaval
celebrations are held nationwide. This year they happened extremely early, in
the first week of February.

The holidays around here end in Ash Wednesday, a date annually selected from a given week of February or March by the Catholic Church, to mark the beginning of Lent – a period of forty days for all Christians to repent and for most to cure their hangover.


That number is prominently significant in the Bible. For the same amount of forty days a flood submerged the Earth, Moses and Elijah wandered the mountains and the Jewish (including Jesus, some years and books later) rambled through the desert. Forty is also recurring on the numerology of other works written in the Middle and ancient East.


While reading the news last week, the chiming reference on my mind was ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. The allusion was made popular on national politics in 2005, when a corruption scandal plunged  Congress (and the political focus of everyone else) into an investigation that eventually was narrowed to forty suspects, most of them very close to president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, accused of systematically using public money to buy votes in Congress.


That case now is coming to a close. Despite eventual highlights that make the news, indicating that the scheme run back then by the Gang of 40 (as nicknamed by the prickly national media) existed before Lula made it to the presidency in 2002, the subject has mostly disappeared from the national radar, while our government is enjoying the popularity of a good economic moment experienced by the country.


But just as politicians were getting back from their Carnaval vacations to Brazilian capital Brasília, a whole new scandal broke out making headlines on televised news and appearing on the covers and front pages of national magazines and newspapers.


The reason for the latest war of words are the bills of the government’s corporate credit cards, used by employees of the government to pay for various spendings, that grew up to more than US$ 2 million last year.


Some tabs are clearly personal, including BBQ for the president and purchases at the free-shop by Matilde Ribeiro, now former minister of the Secretary of Racial Equality, a job created by President Lula, from which she resigned after the accusations of her squanders built up enough political pressure.


Created by previous president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1998, these credit cards had the goal to cut shady spendings, which were easier to hide with old and cold cash.


Back then, the bills were already astronomical, but nobody paid much attention. This year, however, due to the unstable scenario of upcoming municipal elections, several accusations of embezzlement broke a war between government and opposition.


After that, many other irregular spendings were dug up, driving the opposition to open up a CPI (Portuguese acronym for Parliamentary Investigation Commission) hoping to undermine the government for the next elections.


That plan quickly backfired, as government allies in congress and senate got underway to extend the investigation to encompass all the bills since the credit cards were established, which include four years that the opposition was ruling and spending.


Government shock troops are now threatening to broaden investigations to reach the staff of José Serra, former candidate that ran the presidential election in 2002 and the current mayor of São Paulo.


While both sides fight each other and play with the media, Brazilian society starts the year of 2008 just like any other, sneering at national politics with a sense of resignation translated in a phrase commonly used to describe the output of most political investigations of the country, saying that “it always ends up in pizza”.


Daniel M. Cavalcante is a journalism student.

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