Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

A rising giant

19 December 2013
A man dressed in a convict costume, holds a handful of paper money during an anti-corruption march in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday Oct. 12, 2011. Demonstrators, many who carry brooms the colors of their nation's flag, are demanding that Brazil's legislators "sweep out" corruption. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

I missed the most exciting year Brazil has had since I was born. The nationwide protests against corruption made me feel, more than 6.000 kilometers away from my native country, that Brazilians had finally opened their eyes.

The protests not only happened in Brazilian cities but also in other countries. I was in Washington, D.C. when one of the protests against corruption occurred in front of the White House. It was a great moment when I realized that even though they were far away from their country, they were looking for a change, looking for a better Brazil.

While I was protesting, many Americans stopped to ask what we were doing. I tried to explain the problems we have in our country, but they couldn’t understand, because Brazil is known worldwide as the country of soccer, Carnival, and now as the host of the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. I’m not saying that we are not party people who love to play soccer and ‘jump’ Carnival. We are, but as a new democracy Brazil has a lot of issues related to its economy and, especially, its politics. That’s another reason why we were protesting. We are tired putting on a front to the world, giving the message that we are the happiest country in the universe.

There is an expression in Brazil that says that “everything ends in pizza,” meaning that most discussions, especially political ones, go on and on and never accomplish anything. However, last month marked the first time Brazilians saw a corruption case not ending in pizza.

Two events provide hope that change is afoot in Brazil: the Mensalão scandal, in which the ruling party gave payments of roughly $10,000 from public funds to buy political favors, and the case of the Brazilian deputy Natan Donadon, who was sentenced by the Supreme Court to 13 years in prison for diverting 8.4 million reals ($4 million) from the Legislative Assembly of Rondônia while he was the chief financial officer of the institution. These are the best examples of the possible extinction of the use of the expression “everything ends in pizza.”

Is corruption related to the cultural background of Brazil?

In Brazil, corruption can be traced back to culture. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, a Brazilian historian and journalist, says the emphasis on cordiality is significantly responsible for corrupt conduct in Brazil. Holanda says the relations in the Brazilian society are treated as affective and personal, even in the political field, crossing the line between private and public.

For the Brazilian jurist and political scientist, Raymundo Faoro, corruption in Brazil is related to the concept of “estamento burocrático,” which is a type of social stratum that is responsible for the administration of the government. Faoro says this stratum has a goal of maintaining its status and increasing its income. So, using the expression coined by the jurist, the history of the country was all about “mudar para nada mudar” (change to not change anything).

Brazil’s history with corruption preceded the colonization of the country by the Portuguese. In Portugal, nobles and bureaucrats were attached to the State, which funded their lifestyle and costs. Because they were very influential, the bureaucrats started to create structures to maintain their status.

This whole system was transported to Brazil when the Portuguese arrived there in 1500. Even Independence in 1822 and the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889 didn’t help to eradicate the costly stratum. Both were just another degree of the style “mudar para nada mudra.” This status was maintained until the end of the military regime in 1985 and changed in some aspects but not much with the democratic revolution.

It’s hard to distinguish when favors are instances of Brazilians being kind or are corrupt political favors. Brazilians are known for their “jeitinho brasileiro” (Brazilian way), which refers to taking advantage of any situation. This may be viewed by other nationalities as immoral conduct, but in Brazil it is seen as common as drinking water. Brazilians would never accept losing an opportunity because someone had a better personal background than them.

So, besides impunity and bad government, culture and history are also related to corruption in Brazil. On November 15th, 2013 (ironically the day of the Proclamation of the Republic), the country’s biggest case of corruption came to an end. The incident known as the Mensalão Scandal, which began in 2005, put 12 of 37 high-ranking officials – such as executives and politicians – in jail.

Now that the trial is over, many expect the Brazilian political system will change. In the early years of her term, President Dilma Rousseff put into effect a new freedom of information law, creating a government data website called a “Transparency Portal”, on which government entities are required to publish expenses within a 24-hour period. She also fired six ministers from the previous government who were linked to corruption cases, and volunteered Brazil to serve as co-chair of the Open Government Partnership. Rousseff was also the president of a truth commission which dealt with tortures committed during the 1964-85 dictatorship.

Brazil's new democracy progressed in the shadow of a military dictatorship. This explains why an amnesty law from 1979 still protects torturers and their respective military leaders. Impunity is extended to people who tortured Brazil’s current president. Interrogators stripped a young Dilma Rousseff naked and tortured her with electric shocks, which damaged her uterus.

The result of all these facts is a national embarrassment: impunity. The incidence of prosperous, corrupt politicians across the Brazilian political landscape gives the message to citizens that corruption pays. One of the most notable examples is former President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached in 1992 and now is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and National Defense.

Even after the protests led one hundred thousand people to Rio de Janeiro’s streets and other main Brazilian cities in June, July and September, the nation still believes this is not the end of the war against corruption. Many political scientists are uncertain whether or not the Mensalão trial will bring political and social change to the country.

So, it’s not only some corrupt politicians that are the population’s target but the whole judicial system. The only hope is that the new Brazilian generation will have the same guts of the ‘Painted Faces’ that marched in 1992, and help this new democracy grow in the international arena as a power that was able to eradicate, or at least lessen, the cases of impunity and corruption.

By Marina Lemos Demartini. 

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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