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Corruption? No Big Deal! That’s the Way Things Are Done In Brazil

Martin Afonso de Souza, founder of São VicenteThe present problem of corruption involving the Lula administration finds its roots in the colonial days when Portuguese colonizers were faithful adherents of the extra-legal rule that “a gift makes room for a person”. In fact, some of Brazil’s colonial rulers were notorious for their rapacity and venality. Colonial documents reveal that public officers, including high ranking officers, were engaged in robberies, injuries, murders, rapes, adulteries, and public concubinage.

All such things, says an official document from that time, were inflicted upon the population of Portugal’s colonies “without fear of God and the King”.

Then when King John IV (1640-56) once asked father Antônio Vieira in the 1640s whether or not the region of Maranhão should be separated from the province of Pará, he advised the monarch to keep things just as they are. The outspoken Jesuit reminded his king that “one thief in a public office is a lesser evil than two”.

As even the colonial governors acted in this way, so did the same most of the judges, magistrates, bailiffs, and treasury officials. It is commonly said that even a Portuguese person with relatively good morals in his country used to ‘forget’ them when migrating to colonies like Brazil, to only behave in decent manner again if he ever returned to Europe.

As a result of this tradition of corruption, people in Brazil seem to have become quite lax about the problem. In fact, there are politicians who have been re-elected after many evidences of corrupt behaviour. On certain occasions it seems that corruption has even enhanced the popularity of the politician.

This might be true for the case of Adhemar de Barros, the governor of São Paulo in the 1950s and 1960s. Voters knew that he liked very much to steal public money, but kept voting on Barros for considering him a ‘generous’ leader for themselves. Believe it or not, the slogan of Governor Barros during his political campaigns was ‘Rouba Mas Faz’ (“He Steals but He Makes Things Happen”).

One of the reasons given by the army officers to oust the President João Goulart on 31 March 1964 was to end corruption in the government. Two decades after the army coup, corruption seemed to have even increased throughout the military regime. In brief, army officers promised to eliminate corruption but were forced to leave power due to “increased levels of corruption, and the erosion of the armed forces institutional prestige”.

Along the present democratic era that started in 1985, legal institutions have been experiencing a permanent state of crisis. It is quite fair to say that corruption has undermined the trust in such institutions, by casting ‘shadows of lawlessness’ that erode public confidence in values such as democracy and the rule of law. According to Alana Gutierrez, a research fellow from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA),

“In Brazil, there truly is no deterrence from venality because the political elite is rarely charged or punished for it. This indicates that there is a serious failing when it comes to respecting the rule of law.

“As a result, political credibility and respect for policy-making, as well as compliance with already existing laws that act as a shield against unlawful behavior, become invalid. In the end, an inefficient state is born from the ashes of immorality and injustice”.(1)

It is common to see in Brazil politicians who demand bribes for contracts with the state. When it happens the contractors have to pay a bribe to a third party that is associated with the politician. The contract can be signed for a major undertaking, such as the building of a highway, or for a far more modest one, like to provide cleaning service to a public school.

According to the Constitution of Brazil, parliamentarians shall not be the owners, controllers, or directors of any company which enjoys any sort of benefit arising from a contract with a public agency or state-owned company. The law also forbids them to have any remunerated position therein.

Yet, a common way that politicians find to bend the law is by setting up a company using the names of relatives or friends as a front. Thus the company, which is indirectly owned by a politician, goes sometimes to increase its profits by either inflating the prices beyond the market levels or using poor materials.

When he was only a candidate to the 2002 presidential election, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised to do everything he can to combat corruption. In September 2002, he even signed an ‘Anti-Corruption Pledge’ prepared by the Transparency International (AI). On that occasion, the AI went to praise Lula for being the first candidate to sign such pledge, which contained important measures to curb corruption.

In reality, the Transparency International hailed Lula da Silva as “the first candidate in Brazilian history to adopt in his election programme a series of concrete measures to combat corruption”.

Eduardo Capoblanco, the TI’s national president, even suggested that the mere signing of the anti-corruption pledge was in itself an “evidence that Lula is a candidate prepared to make a commitment to stamp out corruption”.

A few years latter, under the Lula administration, corruption has now reached unprecedented levels in Brazil. No other government in the whole history of this country has had more top party leaders, congressmen, ministers, and functionaries under investigation for fraud in such a brief period. According to James Petras, a former sociology professor at Binghamton University,

“Corruption has devastated the Lula regime in Brazil. Every sector of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) has been implicated in bribery, fraud, vote buying, theft of public funds, failure to report illicit campaign financing, and a host of other felonious behavior, revealed almost daily between May-July 2005.

“All of Lula’s closest and most important advisers, congressional leaders and party bosses have been forced to resign and are under congressional investigation for illegal large-scale transfers of funds into electoral campaigns, private enrichment, and financing full time functionaries”.(2)

The first of the non-stop series of acts of corruption was unveiled in February 2004, when a video recorded the deputy-chief for parliamentary affairs of the Workers’ Party (PT), Waldomiro Diniz, collecting bribes from a ‘bicheiro’ (illegal gambling boss) for the electoral campaign of PT politicians. Since the action was both filmed and recorded, Lula had no other option but to dismiss the deputy-chief of his political party.

When the case was revealed, the attorney general Cláudio Fontenelles declared that what Diniz had done was a ‘normal thing’. According to him, corruption is fact that exists in all parties, associations, and families. Thus he concluded by suggesting that everyone would have a “dark side” and that corruption is just “part of normal life”.

Not agreeing with the opinion of the attorney general, some parliamentarians went to successfully collect a necessary number of signatures in order to establish a parliamentary committee of investigation. They wished to investigate the participation of other high authorities in that scheme.

In fact, the Constitution of Brazil says that any House of the National Congress can either jointly or separately establish a Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito (Congressional Investigating Committee – CPI) to watch over cases of considerable importance. The only requisite is that this sort of committee has to be requested by at least one-third of members of any House of the National Congress.

Once a CPI is successfully established, it becomes automatically endowed with full powers of investigation. The final result of the investigation might be forwarded to the public prosecution, which is free in this case to decide whether or not to initiate civil or criminal action against the parties involved.

According to the Amnesty International, CPIs “have been an efficient tool to expose corruption schemes, to politically punish those involved and at least partially to suggest changes in legislation”. In fact, it was a CPI which uncovered the scheme of corruption which led President Fernando Collor de Mello to resign from the executive office in December 1992, as an attempt to avoid impeachment in the Senate.

Since the Constitution says that CPIs can be established at the request of a minority of parliamentarians, it is clear that the constitutional lawmaker wished to allow even the opposition to create such a committee. And yet when the opposition obtained more than the necessary number of signatures, the government went to arbitrarily obstruct it by not appointing its members to the CPI.

In doing so the Lula administration violated not only the Brazilian Constitution but also the popular will of 80 percent of the population, who had already manifested through opinion polls their desire of a CPI to watch over that scandal.

In another and more recent scandal, the Workers’ Party (PT) has been found paying bribes to members of other political parties in return for their votes in Congress. The case started being unveiled when a political appointee who works at the postal service was filmed telling two bogus businessmen that they could win public contracts by paying bribes to Roberto Jefferson, the parliamentary leader of the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB).

In an attempt to deviate the attention of the media from himself, Jefferson ended up disclosing another and more serious scandal. On June 15, 2005, he told a congressional ethics’ committee that the PT was paying a monthly allowance of US$ 12 thousand to some parliamentarians, in return for their support to government-sponsored law proposals. If the allegation is confirmed, as it has been on an almost daily basis, the PT government has built a ‘de facto’ parliamentary majority by means of bribery.

Roberto Jefferson named the Chief-of-Staff Minister José Dirceu as the mentor of the scheme involving the bribing of parliamentarians. He explained that bribes were first collected from private companies and then distributed on a monthly basis to parliamentarians from the Progressive Party (PP) and the Liberal Party (PL). According to Professor Arthur Ituassu, from the department of international relations of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio),

“José Dirceu is a high-profile figure in Brazilian political life, well-known to the country’s political class and media for many years. In exile after the coup that deposed Goulart, he trained as a guerrilla in Cuba, and returned in disguise with a new identity. For years, he did not even reveal his real name to his wife. He was successful in studies and politics, where his Stalinist expertise greatly helped his rise to become Lula’s most trusted aide.

“Dirceu’s guiding mantra was clear to everyone: It does not matter how you do it as long as you do it. By operating according to it, he became both feared and powerful inside the PT and (after 2002) the government; and it is also how he planned to reach the presidency after Lula’s second term expired in 2010”.(3)

When a group of parliamentarians wished to establish a CPI to investigate this new scandal, the government tried once again to prevent this to happen, suggesting that investigation “bordered on a coup” of the ‘elites’. The government’s political coordinator, Aldo Rebelo, a member of the Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B), even suggested that all denounces were a diabolical plan of “reactionary forces” to destabilize President Lula.

But in speech on national television on August 12, 2005, Lula confessed corruption by declaring that he feels ‘angry’ and ‘betrayed’ by the practices within the ruling PT that he says he had no idea of their existence. He did so after the leader of the Liberal Party (PL), Valdemar da Costa Neto, admitted in a ethics’ committee that he was receiving illegal payoffs from the ruling PT. Forced to resign from his parliamentary seat, on August 1, 2005, he thus took the opportunity to say that Lula was involved is another scheme in which members of the PL had received bribes to support his presidential candidature, in 2002.

Despite all these corruption scandals, the popularity of Lula has not been affected. Although a June 2005 opinion poll indicated that 77 percent of the population consider him partially guilty of corruption, another poll has revealed that the approval rating of Lula has actually increased from 57% in May 2005 to 60% in July 2005. Moreover, the approval rating for the PT government has also increased during the same period, from 39.9% to 40.3%.

The fact that regardless of so many scandals the popularity of President Lula remains intact should not surprise those who really know how Brazil works. The PT government has spent millions of dollars in political propaganda.

So much propaganda does nothing to reduce social problems but, on the other hand, it serves to boost Lula’s charismatic image as “a former factory workers with no university degree who speaks to his people as one of them”. Then even if he is found guilty of corruption, many will try to justify it by saying that he was just “holding his own in a tough world”.

But given to the fact that Lula declares that he was completely unaware of everything that was going on around him, one might say that Brazilians must now decide if they have a blatantly dishonest or a grossly incompetent president.

Because of overwhelming evidences against him, the brother of President Lula, Jackson da Silva, thinks it is ‘impossible’ that he didn’t know that close friends, particularly José Dirceu (who has resigned from the ministry in June 2005) and Delúbio Soares (the PT’s treasurer), were bribing parliamentarians of other political parties.

“They have been with my brother for years. My wife can cheat on me for a month, but not years. If Dad were alive he would have pulled his ear for not saying the truth”, said Jackson da Silva.(4)

If it is proved that Lula either knew or participated in any scheme of corruption, the Constitution says that he should be accused of a ‘crime of responsibility’. The proceeding starts with its approval in the House of Representatives and final judgement at the Senate. But Lula will certainly stay in power until the end of his mandate, because the opposition says his impeachment could trigger an economic crisis.

In reality, however, the opposition is not going to press too much for his impeachment because it fears that other revelations against its own members can come also to surface. This is particularly true for the case of the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

When Cardoso was in the presidency, his government was accused of paying five congressmen a total of nearly US$ 1 million, in exchange of their votes for an amendment to the Constitution that which allowed him to successfully run for re-election.

What is more, even the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court, Nelson Jobim, has manifested his opposition to impeachment. He argues that impeachment would generate “an untenable climate of confrontation, given his continued personal popularity and strong base of support, making the country ungovernable for years to come”.(5)

In this way the highest judicial authority in Brazil actually admits that a president’s personal popularity counts more in this country than any respect to the rule of law.

Reference

(1) Gutierrez, Alana; Bush Should Use Brazil’s Corruption to Show Real Friendship. Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles/CA, 14 September 2005. See: https://www.brazzil.com/content/view/9399/76/

(2) Petras, James; Lula’s Workers Regime Plummets in Stew of Corruption. Counterpunch, July 30-31. See: http://www.counterpunch.org/petras08012005.html

(3) Ituassu, Arthur; Something Else is Rotten in Brazil Besides Lula and the PT. Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles, 18 August 2005. See: https://www.brazzil.com/content/view/9380/76/

(4) Brazil Lula’s Brother: ‘Dad Would Pull His Ear for Lying’. Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles/CA, 20 August 2005. See: http://www.brazzilmag.com/content/view/3648/49/

(5) Osava, Mario; Lula Remains Bullet-Proof as Scandal Rages On. IPS News, Rio de Janeiro, 1 August 2005. See:
http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=29731

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitutional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is: augustozimmermann@hotmail.com.

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