It’s Time Brazil Stops Blaming the Past for Its Corruption Epidemic

Joaquim Barbosa Brazil is highly known for its diverse and dynamic culture. This population is the product of a long-going “melting pot” that has combined ethnicities from all over the globe. This mixing of cultures resulted in a nation unlike any other. Here, they dance the majestic samba, they play beautiful soccer, and finally, the country’s location in the tropics is one of pure privilege.

But another matter that sets Brazil apart from many other countries is the continuing practice of political corruption.

Brazil has been practicing the dark art of corruption for a long time. Unfortunately, it is not only the political and economic arenas that become most affected, but the ideology of the citizens themselves. Brazilians have grown accustomed to a broken political system that insists on remaining in place. Efforts to change the way politics have been conducted rose once before in the 90’s, but soon died, leading to a continued path of corruption.

Now, a call for cleaner politics is starting to reemerge once again, but it is hard to tell if this time it will succeed. Today, the topic of corruption is a permanent section in national magazines such as Veja and Isto É. People go on with their lives reading about political scandals on their way to work. For years, daily TV news has reported nothing but corruption and violence.

The real question now asks who is really to blame for the modern corruption. We cannot tell if it is the culture that unknowingly allows continuing dishonesty or if it is the politicians the ones who cannot seem to “play nice” and help clean up the mess.

Sadly enough, Brazilian culture has been exposed to the burden of corruption since its early years. It is safe to state that the spree of corruption started in 1808 when the royal Portuguese family fled to Brazil in an effort to escape from Napoleon Bonaparte. This period was marked by a number of significant changes, which later on would result in the inevitable independence of Brazil, but a corrupt court made itself known in the colony.

Dom João VI and his royal crew constantly bribed their way around and seemed to enjoy naming incompetent people to vital positions in the government. Interesting enough, in 1808 a bank was created, and critics would argue this bank was introduced to support the fraudulent ongoing financial practices of the royal court. The bank was given the name of Banco do Brasil.

Two centuries later, Brazil still remains marked by corruption and leaves many countries behind in the “competition” of which country is most corrupt. Transparency International, an organization created to measure global corruption in the world, ranks countries on their corruption levels. In the latest 2012 research, Brazil tied with Macedonia and South Africa. On a scale of 0 – 100, where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt and 100 means that a country is perceived as very clean, Brazil scored 43.

Compared to 2011, this score showed great improvement on Brazil’s part. Based on the overall ranking positions of last year, the country jumped from the 73rd to the present 64th position, which is positive, remembering that the “1st” placement is for the cleanest country. On the opposite end of the rankings, the top scores are North Korea and Somalia assuming the 174th position and taking the lead of most untrustworthy.[1]

In the United States, a country that holds the 19th position, corruption also plays its role, but it appears to be much more controlled. The US has 5% of the entire population in the globe and almost 25% of the inmates in the world. This country sentences an average of 1.000 people every year on charges of corruption, whereas Chicago leads the charts.[2] These numbers obviously are not pretty, but are certainly better than Brazil.

Recent history shows that Brazil has successfully fought corruption once before. In the early 1990’s, former president Fernando Collor was the target of an anti-corruption movement called “caras-pintadas.” This group was made up of mostly young adults who peacefully protested on the streets by painting their faces with the colors of the national flag and holding signs demanding a presidential impeachment.

Fernando Collor came to the presidency in 1989 as a symbol of hope and democracy. That election was of extreme importance because it was the first time the people were directly electing a president, excluding the so called “elections” of 1960, since the military dictatorship.

Collor was a charismatic man who ran on promises of fighting hyperinflation and ending corruption. In the first days of his new administration, Collor announced a plan that was supposed to finally contain hyperinflation. This initial action turned out to be the most radical economic intervention in the history of Brazil and resulted in the biggest recession the country has ever seen.

The main factor of the plan involved freezing savings accounts beyond the value of  50,000 cruzados novos (today, equivalent to US$ 3,100) in an effort to reduce money circulation and contain a deeper devaluation of the currency. This economic theory of simple currency supply and demand made sense, but neither the country nor the Collor administration were prepared for such an important move.

Such an audacious approach only ended up aggravating the situation to the worst possible scenario. Sadly enough, there were instances of many people who committed suicide because they suddenly went broke and could not fulfill their debts. Once bank accounts were set back to normal 18 months later, inflation had already eaten away the value of the funds and caused even greater frustration among the population.

Following other failed attempts to control hyperinflation, Collor found himself as the center of serious corruption allegations. Most of these accusations came from his brother, Pedro Collor, who accused Fernando Collor of supporting a corruption scheme within the presidential administration.

In an effort to reverse the situation and discredit the Senate, which had already launched an impeachment process, Collor called on the people to take to the streets and support the government by wearing pieces of clothing with the colors of the flag. The result was young people on the streets, dressed in black, and showing their faces painted in protest against the corruption of the Collor administration.

In 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello resigned before the conclusion of his impeachment trial. The Senate still continued the trial and found Collor guilty on the charges of corruption and sentenced him to disqualification to hold a public office for eight years. Criminal charges were later not sustained due to lack of evidence, but the separate sentence of disqualification was upheld and the people of Brazil could celebrate their most significant democratic action in the recent history of the country.

In the early years of its young democracy, the Brazilian people held firm to their right of social equality and made use of it to the fullest. As we know, it is not common to see a presidential coup or a call for presidential impeachment in today’s age, although it does happen once in a while. Brazil, in fact, surprised the entire world by, without any act of violence, removing a corrupt president from office.

And this all happened in a country with only five years of uninterrupted democracy. At that very moment, Brazil was an example to the rest of the world and a truly nightmare for any practitioners of corruption. Today, more than 20 years later, we look back and ought to recognize that not enough was done to tackle corruption. The momentum of 20 years ago was simply not sufficient to bring us to an age where a cleaner government could be sustained.

Even though the caras-pintadas made a strong statement about intolerance of corruption, the country failed to hold on to that ideology and the momentum faded away. Unfortunately, this was a rare opportunity to bring down corruption in Brazil, but the country did not recognize the importance of developing that way of acting and the necessary efforts to push forward a cleaner post-Collor political system.

At that moment, the country needed greater political transparency and proper punishment of wrongdoers. These two remedies are basic tools for the success of any anti-corruption campaign. But even today, nations around the world try to limit such basic measures that would help sustain a cleaner political atmosphere.

Now, there finally appears to be a quiet anti-corruption revival in Brazil. From the caras-pintadas of the 90’s, the new symbol now is a single black man, Joaquim Barbosa, who has helped fight the mensalão scandal. The mensalão is one of the most scandalous corruption cases in Brazil, in which congressmen were bribed on a monthly basis in order to vote in favor of particular projects during Lula’s administration.

Joaquim Benedito Barbosa Gomes, 58 years old, came from a poor family in Minas Gerais and is the son of a former bricklayer. He put his way through law school by working as a janitor in the Federal Supreme Tribunal in Brasília, the country’s capital. Since November 2012, Barbosa has sat as the President of the Federal Supreme Tribunal, a position he gained by being elected after working as a Minister of the same Tribunal for ten years.

Barbosa caught the attention of many Brazilians by attacking the mensalão in the Tribunal as if he was speaking on behalf of everyday people. While other ministers were soft and appeared to want to alleviate the penalties on some of the accused during trial, Barbosa would stand up behind his chair while speaking of the seriousness of this case.

Barbosa preached the application of exemplary punishment and the importance of concluding the case as the law requires. He spoke with assertion and constantly argued with colleagues who seemed to want to lighten the punishments. Barbosa made clear that this case is highly significant to the molding of the future of the country and its efforts to insure justice, regardless of how influential the accused might have been in the political sphere.

Seven years into the mensalão’s scandal, by the end of 2012, the Federal Supreme Tribunal had tried 37 public figures, of whom 25 were found guilty and the remaining 12 were acquitted of all charges. Brazilians went off celebrating their holidays with a sense of higher hopes in the blinded eyes of justice. Maybe the mensalão was the step needed to force the system to challenge corruption in Brazil once again.

The initial impulse was given by the actual sentencing of corrupt politicians; this is generally a significant move by the courts and one rarely seen in Brazil. Politicians now think twice before acting unethically and people are starting to build trust towards the courts, if they continue to pursue corrupt politicians. Although the push has been given by the courts, based on history, it is impossible to know if this will be enough to bring clearer skies over the political system. Will the momentum fade away once again?

Brazilians are used to seeing corruption cases in the news for years now; impunity for white collar crimes has always been strong. Since Collor was called up on corruption charges, the few isolated cases brought against corrupt politicians in recent years only seemed to have momentary impact in the media and in people’s lives.

Brazilians are growing more like those in the highly developed world. We are improving our forgetful tendencies and placing the past into the past. It is not lucrative to keep printing the same news over and over. Readers demand to be updated in a daily basis, and that is when corruption scandals get lost into the bundle of old news.

The mensalão might turn out to be a case of its own. It might actually give the necessary push to generate an awareness to fight political impunity. This is a case that shocked the entire country and, finally after seven years, the Federal Tribunal was able to put it on the table and deal with it. For seven years, Brazilians believed that justice simply would not be meted to influential political figures.

This only reassured the people that they lived in a corrupt country – they had been used to thinking: “So what?” Now the mensalão case haunts not only those caught up in it, but also the one person who was in charge when it took place, but claimed to know nothing about it: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president at the time of the mensalão.

Lula was a great president during two consecutive terms. He continued the successful economic policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and implemented his own policies that helped in the development of the country. At the end of his term, Lula was able to help elect his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, the first woman president of Brazil, and he always maintained a high approval rating both during and after his term.

Lula became a symbol for the Brazilian people – now, imagine if this great figure is found guilty of corruption in the mensalão scandal and then sentenced to jail? The possibility exists.

So far, Lula has insisted that he did not know of the mensalão’s activities while they took place. The mensalão happened during his administration and, as mentioned above, had the intent to benefit projects introduced by the PT (Lula’s political party called Partido dos Trabalhadores). Once this corruption scheme was discovered, Lula consistently denied having any knowledge of it.

Normally, the media would have been expected to insist on Lula’s involvement and try to find out what actually happened. In this particular case, a few factors played in Lula’s favor. One is that he is an inspirational figure and destroying the image of such an icon might be devastating to the nation’s spirit.

Lula is a man who came from severe poverty and rose to be one of the greatest presidents Brazil has ever seen. If a man like this happens to be ensnared by corruption, then ordinary working people have little to hope for as they fight to win over every single day.

During trial testimonies, a few accusations arose that Lula might have known about the mensalão. Only then, the Federal Tribunal, led by Barbosa, decided to officially investigate the possible involvement of Lula. We do not know how long this might take nor where it will lead.

If Lula is found guilty of some wrongdoing, this would damage the PT dramatically and Dilma’s reputation would be affected as well. If Lula is not found guilty, then the nation exhales alleviated and the media might refocus on making sure that those convicted of the mensalão are actually punished.

The reality is that Brazil needs to grow up. It is not that Brazil is a victim of its own people who have relied on political malpractice for hundreds of years. It is not Dom João VI and his friends who deviated our rooted principles. It is not the persistent dictatorship that damaged our political system.

It is also not Fernando Collor who, temporarily, obliterated hopes of an honest democracy. And finally, it is not because of the mensalão that we ought to accept a political system managed by immoral practices.

The solution for this disorder is for Brazilians to look into their own culture and recognize that, in most cases, it is we who allow corruption to persist. It is we who grow used to and accept the routine of politics. It is we who read the news in disbelief, but then flip the page. It is we who accept a corrupt political system.

[1] Corruption Perception Index 2012, Transparency International.

[2] Anti-Corruption Report # 5, University of Illinois.

José Ricardo lives in Connecticut and is originally from Governador Valadares, in Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Ricardo has a degree in International Business and is currently finishing his MBA in Finance from the University of Bridgeport. To read the full article on Brazilian corruption and see other additional work, go to – Twitter @_zerri



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