Brazilians dare to hope crackdown on corruption is real

October 30, 2012

— Normally, live coverage of events in Brazil is reserved for football matches.

But in recent weeks, the law professors at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), a Brazilian educational institution, have been running live commentary on something entirely different – the Mensalão (or big monthly allowance) case in the Supreme Court.

So unprecedented is the case – in which the court, in televised hearings, has convicted senior members of Brazil’s former Workers’ Party, the PT, of corruption – that the professors have set up an on-campus “situation room” to provide live commentary to the media.

With the judges now moving to sentencing, interest in the trial is picking up.

“This case is a result of the strengthening of the rule of law in Brazil,” said Oscar Vilhena Vieira, director of law at the FGV.

Some Brazilians, jaded by decades of scandals in Brasília in which the perpetrators seemed to act with impunity, are suddenly daring to hope that the old ways of doing business may finally be changing in the vast emerging-market nation.

Those convicted in the Mensalão include former top lieutenants of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, such as former chief of staff José Dirceu, who were found guilty of using public money to pay secret monthly stipends to opposition politicians in the National Congress in return for their support. Scores of people have been found guilty. The few sentences handed out so far have been tough.

“Brazil is taking this seriously because they see it as part of their role as an emerging power,” said Alejandro Salas, regional director for the Americas at the organization Transparency International, which ranks Brazil at 3.8 out of 10 in its corruption perceptions index (10 being regarded as “very clean”). This compares with fellow members of the big BRIC emerging markets: Russia at 2.4, India at 3.1 and China at 3.6.

“They will differentiate themselves with the other emerging economies by doing this — by improving governance,” he says.

One only needs to look at past cases, such as that of Ronaldo Cunha Lima, to understand the excitement in Brazil over Mensalão.

Cunha Lima, a former governor of the northern state of Paraíba as well as a former senator, deputy of the lower house of Congress and a municipal council member, shot and wounded a colleague in a restaurant in 1993. He died of cancer this year after having spent only three days in detention for the crime.

When his case finally came before a local court, he escaped judgment by becoming a senator in 2003. In Brazil, only the Supreme Court can handle criminal cases against federal politicians.

When the Supreme Court finally found time to hear the case in 2007, Cunha Lima resigned from the Senate, returning the matter to square one in the inefficient local court system.

“This man has maneuvered and used tricks to escape trial for 14 years,” Joaquim Barbosa, the Supreme Court justice who is leading the Mensalão case, was quoted as saying at the time.

Yet the case was only one of many: from that of Fernando Collor, a former president, who is today a senator despite being impeached when he was in office for corruption, to that of his father, Arnon Mello, a senator who shot dead a colleague in the Senate in 1963 but never faced trial.

Indeed, in the past 30 years, 72 politicians have been murdered in Brazil, according to a list compiled by Carta Capital magazine. Corruption and political violence remain entrenched.

The Mensalão case points to wider changes taking place in Brazil, according to Transparency International’s Salas. The country is managing to couple institutional improvements with more robust enforcement. Traditionally, Latin American countries have struggled to do both in tandem.

Among the institutional reforms, Brazil has introduced the ficha limpa, or “clean slate” law, which prevents people convicted of crimes from running for public office. A law that also prevented the Supreme Court from trying federal politicians without prior approval from Congress has been revoked.

On the enforcement side, the role of the Supreme Court and independent public prosecutors, envisaged in Brazil’s 1988 post-dictatorship constitution as a check and balance on the executive, is beginning to take effect.

“It`s too early to celebrate, but at least the process has started,” says Salas.

Others caution that the optimism should not be overdone. Campaign finance, a source of much corruption, remains murky, as are public contracts for jobs such as construction works and bus lines. They also point to the growing size of government spending in Brazil.

“This government is becoming more interventionist, so you have more opportunities for corruption,” says Luciano Dias, a political consultant in Brasília.

Still, Mensalão is leading some people, especially the young, to dare to take an interest in politics again, says Oliver Stuenkel, assistant professor of international relations at FGV.

“It’s amazing to see optimism without cynicism,” he says.

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