One of the great dangers in following Brazilian politics is that you can become extremely cynical and thick skinned. After a daily diet of corruption, sleaze, greed, lies and incompetence, nothing surprises you any more. The press might print a dozen stories every day involving crooked congressmen, state governors, mayors, policemen, lawyers, judges, trade unionists, soldiers and businessmen but you know that not a single culprit will be punished.
There might be the odd sacking or reprimand but the overwhelming majority know they are safe to continue with their activities. In these circumstances it is not surprising that the “good” guys have to turn a blind eye at best and remain as clean as they can or, as must often happen, give in and succumb to the temptations. This is what has happened to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
These thoughts came to me as I watched Lula greet ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso at the wake for Cardoso’s wife, Ruth, in São Paulo on June 25. It was touching to see the long abraço (hug) the two men gave each other and when Lula looked down at Ruth Cardoso’s face I wondered if he was recalling the days when he and Cardoso were on the same side fighting for the return to democratic rule.
Things were so much easier then and the goal was simple. By coincidence Ruth Cardoso died on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the founding of Cardoso’s PSDB, a social democratic party. The PSDB spun off from the PMDB which had been the main driving force for democratic change along with Lula’s Workers Party (PT) during the final years of military rule.
The PT was founded only a few years before the PSDB and both parties have headed governments since 1995 with the PMDB acting as a powerbroker whenever its interests suited it. The PSDB was never as openly ideological as the PT and during his eight years of rule
Cardoso’s main partner was the PFL (now known as the Democrats), which was supposedly a center-right party which believed in the free market and was against state intervention. Despite sharing some goals, the PSDB and the PT were – and still are – fierce rivals and when it was Lula’s turn to replace Cardoso he formed alliances with a bewildering array of parties, including the PMDB. The PSDB lined up with the PFL as the main opposition force and have been pretty unimpressive to say the least.
It was this unwieldy alliance of Lula’s, which led to the scandal known as the mensalão (big monthly allowance) in which members of some of these parties were bribed to vote in favor of government policies. This blot tarnished the PT’s image and showed that it was not the honest, idealistic movement it had always claimed to be. It showed the PT as the Barbarians at the Gate when Lula finally won office, ransacking Brasília for every grain of power they could get their hands on.
This scandal first emerged in mid-2005 and then gradually built up in the following months until it toppled virtually all of Lula’s top advisers and exposed a network of corruption involving siphoning off funds from state-controlled enterprises and banks.
Despite all the damning evidence that Lula knew what had been going on, no smoking gun was ever found to link him. I recall that even during the blackest days for the government when there was even some muttering by opposition parties of impeaching Lula I was absolutely certain that he would not be toppled and would be easily re-elected the following year.
This turned out to be the case and the only setback was that Lula had to take the vote to the second round after narrowly failing to win 50% in the first round. I did not feel pleased or smug that I had been correct because most other people who follow Brazilian politics had felt the same. However, maybe we should have been more shocked or disappointed and not just have said “I told you so”.
I was talking recently to a foreign journalist who was leaving Brazil after a five-year assignment as head of an international news agency and he said that, while he recognized Lula’s remarkable achievement, he believed Lula had lost some moral prestige over the mensalão. I felt a little guilty on hearing these words because I no longer associate Lula or any politician here with moral prestige.
Have things really reached such a depressing state that you no longer associate ideas like ethics and morality with day-to-day political life? If so, then I wonder if there is any point in continuing to try and following what is happening in Brazilian politics.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2008