Dilma Rousseff approaches the anniversary of her inauguration as Brazil’s president at the beginning of 2012 following a year when policy advances and political setbacks have tumbled into one another. Among the most spectacular of the latter is a series of corruption scandals which has led to the fall of no less than five of her ministers.
The president personally has not been touched by any of these scandals, and her speed and firmness in insisting on the departure of those responsible are to her credit. But the catalogue of incidents – all of which involve male ministers – has to a degree overshadowed her first year in office.
It could even get worse. A sixth target is the minister of Labor, Carlos Lupi, who is accused of demanding payoffs from NGOs in receipt of government contracts. Similar charges forced Orlando Silva from the ministry of sports in October, in the midst of preparations for the football world cup (2014) and the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro (2016).
His loss was preceded by that of Dilma’s influential chief-of-staff and ex-campaign manager, Antonio Palocci, over allegations of illicit enrichment, in June; Alfredo Nascimento (ministry of Transport), in July; Wagner Rossi (ministry of Agriculture), in August; and Pedro Novais (ministry of Tourism), in September.
If that were not enough, Dilma also lost another minister, though not for a corruption scandal. Nelson Jobim (ministry of Defense) resigned in June after inelegant public criticism of two women promoted by Dilma Rousseff, a political episode that emphasized the maleness of the ministerial mess.
In an interview Jobim said that Gleisi Hoffmann, who replaced Palocci, “does not know Brasília”, and called Ideli Salvatti, responsible for Dilma’s difficult political relations with Brazil’s congress in a year of fiscal restrictions, “very weak”.
In a broader light, the spate of resignations highlights the problematic side of the political legacy of Dilma Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After all, with only one exception (Pedro Novais), all the ministers who had fallen during Dilma’s first year were in place during Lula’s presidency (2003-10), and most of the charges against them date from that period.
Orlando Silva was appointed in April 2006; Wagner Rossi in April 2010; Alfredo Nascimento served from 2007 to March 2010, and then returned with Dilma in January 2011. Carlos Lupi, now engulfed in serious accusations, for example, was appointed in March 2007, at the start of Lula’s second term.
Lula left the Brazilian presidency a very popular figure (with ratings of more than 80%), and his current serious illness if anything reinforces this status.
Yet the series of corruption scandals during his administration and now in Dilma’s first year in office raise hard questions about how public funds and domestic negotiations have been handled in Brazil since 2002. It is natural then that great expectations are being invested in a governmental reform planned by Dilma for January 2012.
The Next Plan
At the same time, Dilma Rousseff has extended the social programs that were at the heart of Lula’s political success. She began her presidency by raising by almost 20% the monthly payment (the famous Bolsa Família) given by the government to Brazil’s poor families.
This minimum-income program benefits more than 50 million people, in a country where (according to new data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) the richest 10% own more than 40% of total household income and half of the population lives on less than 400 reais (US$ 216 per month).
In June 2011, Dilma Rousseff launched a plan called Brasil Sem Miséria (Brazil without misery), whose goal – backed by the direct involvement of eight ministries – is to take more than 16 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty.
The project targets people who live on less than 70 reais (US$ 38) per month; it includes the Bolsa Família, other direct benefits for very poor families to buy food, an educational program ending in technical and professional qualifications, and resources for very poor families who live in environmentally protected areas to develop actions for conservation.
This last scheme, the Bolsa Verde, will try to help almost 75,000 families and distribute 240 million reais (US$ 129 million) until 2014. Brasil Sem Miséria has, according to official figures, already benefited more than a million Brazilian children.
Hence, the first year of Dilma Rousseff’s government has lived with the best and the worst of Lula. It is true that political corruption is not a new problem in Brazil and that it has been inflated by the proliferation of non-ideological parties needed to constitute a government.
It is also true that the conservative media in the country has also recently politicized the issue of corruption by turning it into a sort of crusade; this enthusiasm, on matters that are more for the police and the courts to handle, may end by narrowing the scope of Brazil’s political agenda, especially within the opposition.
But explanations should not be justifications, and a critical stance towards the conservative media in Brazil does not clean the dirty negotiations in Brasília.
In this sense, the problems faced by Dilma Rousseff during her first year as Brazil’s president could be turned into a springboard to the reform of January 2012 that aims to renovate the country’s governance over the next three years at least. After all, she and the country have many important things to deal with; corruption is but one.
Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can read more from him at his website: www.ituassu.com.br. This article appeared originally in Open Democracy – www.opendemocracy.net.