RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff may not be having as happy a Christmas as the rest of her country. It has been a tough year: a grueling reelection victory, humiliation for the national team in an otherwise successful World Cup, a flailing economy, and a scandal involving Brazil’s beloved state-controlled oil company Petrobras, dubbed Big Oil, that just won’t go away.
Plus, local media gleefully reports, she is cramping her holidays with a crash diet to lose weight before her second inauguration ceremony on Jan. 1.
Rousseff may well have consoled herself by joining millions of families all over Brazil watching the Dec. 23 television special by singer Roberto Carlos — an iconic Brazilian crooner whose annual special is a national institution. Brazil’s Bing Crosby — in a white suit.
Carlos began this year’s special with his evergreen hit “Emoções” — meaning “emotions” — which has become sort of an alternative national anthem. “If I cried or if I laughed/What’s important is the emotions that I lived,” Carlos sings.
His words have a particular potency for a country that lives its emotional life as forcefully and openly as Brazil does. Where even its president will occasionally cry at public events, as Rousseff did when she was first inaugurated on Jan. 1, 2011, or when the Truth Commission she set up delivered its report on dictatorship-era torture and killings earlier this month.
There is much to be admired in this emotional honesty. But there is also a cost to public debate when, as too often happens, emotions are used to cloud thorny issues.
This happened during Rousseff’s aggressive reelection campaign in October’s acrimonious election, which stoked fear in voters over what would happen if opposition candidates won. They would, the campaign said, deliver the country to white-shirted bankers and cancel social policies like the Workers Party’s flagship income support scheme, “Family Allowance.”
After the election, Rousseff appointed banker Joaquim Levyas the country’s finance minister to turn around the stumbling economy. In his first speech, he said he would consolidate social advances, assuring that the Family Allowance was safe — in the hands of a white-shirted banker.
Brazil loses when emotion takes over strategy, as its World Cup campaign showed. Television footage of the national team lining up in the tunnel for the semifinal against Germany showed apprehensive, nervous Brazilian players beside relaxed, confident Germans. Brazil was then humiliated in a historic 7-1 defeat.
Instead of learning from that epic loss, Brazil apparently prefers to forget it. “I have never watched a replay of that game and I don’t think I ever will,” midfielder Fernandinho, a memberof that losing team, recently told the Guardian. “If anything, I just think we were not prepared to lose.”
Emotion, too, is muddying the Big Oil scandal that went public in March, when an investigation dubbed Operation Car Wash led to the arrests of money-changer Alberto Youssef and former Petrobras supply director Paulo Costa, once one of the company’s highest-ranking executives.
In the latest chapter in this drama, Petrobras executive-turned-whistleblower Venina Fonseca has said she denounced irregularities in e-mails to Petrobras Chief Executive Officer Graça Foster since 2008 — Foster was promoted to her job in 2012 and says Fonseca never alleged corruption.
During the election, this was still a dry, corporate scandal that many voters couldn’t quite understand. Now it has been humanized by Fonseca, who detailed her allegations during a lengthy and, yes, suitably emotional interview broadcast on theprime-time television show “Fantastico” on Dec. 21.
The scandal is important to Brazil because it is emblematic of many problems that hinder its growth, including endemic corruption, political interference and interminable delays in much-needed infrastructure work. But instead of focusing on these issues, the debate has descended into vitriol about the high salary Graça Foster said that Fonseca earned when she ran the Petrobras office in Singapore.
Hate has replaced debate, just as it did during a polarized election. And nobody is talking about what failings at Petrobras led to this, or how its current management failed to spot a multibillion-dollar graft scheme under its nose, even as costs on projects involved, such as the much-needed oil refinery Abreu e Lima, spiraled upwards. Or why Brazilians prefer to ignore corruption rather than confront it.
Big Oil entered Rousseff’s pre-Christmas ministerial reshuffle, when local media reported that the president had wanted to ask Brazil’s attorney general Rodrigo Janot which politicians were going to be investigated in the next stage of Operation Car Wash so she could avoid inviting them to join her new government. Janot refused to comply.
This could have prompted another emotion: incredulity. Or begged the question: is corruption in Brazil so bad that even the president needs independent advice to know which potential ministers might be tainted ?
If the answer is yes, perhaps there is a Christmas present Rousseff could offer her country — a new word, one that has nothing to do with the emotions that drown Brazilian public debates, and everything to do with the governance its institutions so often lack.
That word is accountability, a word that does not exist in Portuguese — and apparently, a concept that does not exist either. Brazilian politicians and business executives caught red-handed will just keep denying guilt beyond the point of absurdity. Nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Nobody ever did anything wrong. Nobody noticed. Ordinary Brazilians shrug because, once again, they’ve been cheated.
Petrobras is a highly visible company in Brazil, not least because of the numerous films, plays and cultural events it sponsors. Perhaps it could commission Roberto Carlos to incorporate a Portuguese equivalent of the word into a song, and Brazil could introduce some accountability into its public life.
Given the important, hard work the judges, prosecutors and police working on the Big Oil scandal are doing, the results could be transformative. With Carlos supplying the soundtrack, Brazilians could continue to laugh and cry at all their country’s problems. But at least they would have the vocabulary to appoint institutional responsibility afterward.