RIO DE JANEIRO — When Brazilian Labor Minister Carlos Lupi was scrambling to save his job after being accused of corruption last month, he was defiant at first, saying that “only a bullet” would force him from office.
Then he tried sweet-talking his way out of trouble, apologizing to Brazil’s irritated president, Dilma Rousseff, and assuring her in public comments, “I love you.”
But Rousseff, the country’s first female president and a no-nonsense technocrat who is about to complete her first year on the job, has shown little patience for any whiff of corruption in a cabinet that includes several holdovers from the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. So last week, Lupi became the sixth scandal-tainted minister to be ousted from Rousseff’s 38-member cabinet — the latest in a string of departures that she has signaled may continue.
“I am not an adolescent, nor a romantic,” she said after Lupi’s last-gasp effort to keep his job. “I analyze objectively.”
Analysts here say that the removal of ministers linked to kickbacks, bribe-taking, diversion of funds and influence peddling has simultaneously underscored Rousseff’s political independence and highlighted the scope of the rot in the capital, Brasilia, just as Brazil’s global visibility and influence are expanding. Corruption is a top public issue, polls show, but many Brazilians question whether Rousseff can succeed in dismantling a system rooted in patronage and backroom deals.
“There is something new that’s happening now,” said Sylvio Costa, director of Congress in Focus, an anti-corruption group in Brasilia. “I think she’s trying to avoid practices that other presidents were not so bothered to accept. But this is a hard and long process.”
Under Brazil’s proportional representation system, political parties of all stripes abound, with 23 of them now operating in the 513-member lower house of congress. To get initiatives approved, presidents must thus form broad coalitions among parties that frequently lack ideology but are intent on controlling as many ministries as they can, said David Fleischer, a Brasilia-based political scientist.
The free-for-all system, enshrined in the 1988 constitution, lends itself to corruption, because those ministries come with thousands of jobs, dispersed nationwide, and big budgets, analysts say.
“It’s something that’s frightening,” Costa said. “I think the core of the problem is a culture of people getting posts in the state and using their power to make private profits illegally, and I think this has a long tradition in Brazil.”
A problem in one presidency after another, the pervasive corruption exploded in scandal in the middle of Lula’s eight-year term when reports emerged that lawmakers had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the president’s Workers’ Party to keep the ruling coalition together. Known as the “monthly payoff,” the practice led to the departure of Lula’s top confidants and indirectly cleared the path to power for a quiet but strong-willed policy wonk, Rousseff.
Today, 136 sitting lawmakers — 22 senators and 114 members of the lower house — are under criminal investigation in a variety of cases, Costa said.
Then in June came trouble for Rousseff’s cabinet. Sao Paulo’s Folha newspaper reported that Antonio Palocci, Rousseff’s chief of staff and a cabinet member, had increased his wealth twentyfold through his consulting firm’s activities. He was forced to resign.
The tourism minister, Pedro Novais, fell after Folha exposed his alleged misuse of public funds, and the magazine Veja then brought down the ministers of agriculture, transportation and sports with a range of corruption allegations. The Labor Ministry’s Lupi, the latest to go, was accused of demanding kickbacks from social organizations seeking state funding.
A seventh cabinet member, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, was also forced out — for having publicly disparaged other government officials.
Yet another, Development Minister Fernando Pimentel, is under pressure after the Rio newspaper O Globo ran articles suggesting that he had engaged in influence peddling.
Rousseff, who marks the start of her second year in office next month, faces a raft of challenges, from reversing an economic slowdown to fulfilling a pledge to end extreme poverty. She needs the coalition of 10 parties that she has cobbled together in congress, Fleischer said, making it unlikely that she would embark on broad political reform.
“That would be almost mission impossible,” he said. “Even her own party would be against” it.
Fleischer instead foresees a shake-up after New Year’s Day as part of the president’s plan to reduce the size of the cabinet by consolidating several ministries.
Still, by purging ministers tarnished by scandal, Rousseff appears to be touching a chord at the right time. Brazilians are asking why their surging country — which is set to soon become the world’s sixth-largest economy, overtaking Britain — should put up with the rot in the halls of power.
“She ends the year on a rather positive note,” said Paulo Sotero, a Brazilian who runs the Brazil Institute at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center. “She’s more popular now than when she started.”