Brazil Update: A Rising Tide against Corruption

By Rachel Glickhouse

Popular support to combat corruption is growing in Brazil, as President Dilma Rousseff dismisses wrongdoers from her cabinet and new clean-record laws aim to block offending candidates from office.

Updated February 3, 2011—Historically, corruption has been a fact of life in Brazilian politics, but the tide may be changing. In the past eight months, President Dilma Rousseff sacked seven of her ministers over corruption charges, and popular anti-corruption movements grew as thousands took to the streets in major cities. A new “clean record” law, which received widespread support when it passed in May 2010, bars candidates convicted of crimes from office. Though the Supreme Court issued conflicting rulings on the law’s implementation, state and municipal versions of the law recently passed, which could pave the way for other local clean record laws.

Rousseff’s Ministry Sweep

The design of Brazil’s political party system, with a large number of parties and conflicting interests, lends itself to political patronage. It compels the president to create complex alliances to ensure congressional support. Maintaining those alliances can make tolerance of wrongdoers something of a necessary evil. The patronage system even led to a massive vote-buying scandal during Lula’s administration, and Lula tended to favor a conciliatory approach to corruption allegations to maintain his party coalition. However, Rousseff has shown low tolerance for corruption and, proving to critics that, in doing so, she can still maintain political stability within the government.

Nearly every month for the past eight months, one of Rousseff’s ministers was forced out of the government. Here’s a list of who’s who in the ministerial scandals:

  • Chief of Staff Antonio Palocci. He resigned on June 7 after newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported he’d expanded his personal wealth by 20 times within four years as a federal deputy. He was providing insider information to companies while acting as a lawmaker and working on Rousseff’s presidential campaign. It was the second time he lost a ministerial post after stepping down as Lula’s finance minister following corruption allegations in 2006. He was also the third chief of staff out of the last four to resign due to corruption allegations.
  • Transportation Minister Alfredo Nascimento. He stepped down on July 6 after accusations that his ministry was overcharging for infrastructure projects and taking bribes from companies in exchange for contracts. Four other high-level officials were also dismissed from the administration in the aftermath of the allegations. This was the first in the series of ministerial scandals which broke after an exposé by Brazilian news magazine VEJA. Saturdays became the “dreaded day” when the weekly magazine would publish new corruption allegations about members of Rousseff’s cabinet.
  • Agricultural Minister Wagner Rossi. On August 17, he resigned after accusations that he’d received kickbacks from private companies in the agriculture industry. Rossi also stood accused of cronyism within the ministry and a government-run company. Milton Ortolan, executive secretary at the Agriculture Ministry, was also sacked.
  • Tourism Minister Pedro Novais. After accusations of spending public funds for personal use, Novais stepped down on September 14. While serving as a congressman between 2003 and 2010, he used government money to pay for a maid and his wife’s driver, and was even brazen enough to bill a night at a sex motel as a congressional expense. Prior to his departure, authorities arrested over 30 people, including officials from the Tourism Ministry, during a federal police operation that uncovered an $8.1 million embezzlement scheme between the Ministry of Tourism and a non-profit.
  • Sports Minister Orlando Silva. He resigned on October 26 after revelations that he and ministry officials received kickbacks of up to $23 million from non-profit sports organizations. Silva was responsible for coordinating preparation efforts for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. FIFA officials supported his departure.
  • Labor Minister Carlos Lupi. He stood accused of demanding kickbacks on government contracts with non-profits, accepting favors from contractors, and embezzling public funds. He staunchly defended himself despite growing evidence of wrongdoings, including a photo of him getting off a plane rented by one of the non-profits in question. Following the accusations, he resigned on December 4.
  • Cities Minister Mário Negromonte. His ministry was under investigation since November 2011 for fraud in World Cup infrastructure projects in Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state. The ministry allegedly favored a company that donated to Negromonte’s campaign for federal deputy, and chose a contract with a much higher cost than the original bid. Following the allegations, Negromonte openly wept during an event for the Brazilian government’s affordable housing program Minha Casa, Minha Vida on November 25, claiming he was the victim of discrimination for being from Brazil’s Northeast. On February 2, Negromonte finally resigned, following a Folha de São Paulo report on the involvement of his executive secretary in favoring contracts.

Clean Record Laws Aim To Bar Corrupt Candidates

Over 2 million Brazilians signed a petition to pass the Lei da Ficha Limpa, or the Clean Record Law, which was passed in May 2010 and seeks to ban politicians convicted of crimes or corruption from running for office for eight years. The intent is not only to bar corrupt candidates from office, but also to hold them accountable for crimes, since in the past elected officials would use a loophole by preemptively resigning to avoid prosecution. An Ibope poll in September 2010 found that 85 percent of Brazilians support the law.

However, legal obstacles threaten the law’s implementation, and there’s a chance it could even be overturned. Around 330 candidates could have been barred from taking office in the 2010 elections, under the statutes of the law, but in March 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the law would not apply to the previous election. Instead of blocking all ineligible candidates as the law prescribes, the Court decided it would rule on individual cases. As a result of the court cases, a number of candidates were recently sworn into Congress, including Senator Cássio Cunha Lima on November 4 and Senator João Caperibe on November 29. Federal Deputies João Pizzolatti, Janete Capiberibe (wife of João Capiberibe), and Magda Mofatto were sworn in on November 14. Senator Jader Barbalho, a politician with a notoriously murky record, awaits a Supreme Court decision to determine whether he can take office.

Once the newest Supreme Court justice is affirmed in December, the Court will continue deliberations on the constitutionality of the law and whether it will be used in the 2012 elections. But in the meantime, several states and municipalities recently passed clean-record laws of their own, which could pave the way for more locally based clean-record legislation. On November 17, the state of Mato Grosso and the city of Cuiabá passed ficha limpa laws, as did the city of Teresina, in Piauí state. Rio de Janeiro state passed a clean record law on November 22. Ficha limpa bills are under consideration in Amazonas state, the municipality of Bauru, and the municipality of Vinhedo, among others.

Perceptions of Corruption

Brazil improved slightly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2011, receiving a grade of 3.8, a 2.7 percent increase from the previous year. But despite the boost, it dropped in the rankings from the 69 spot in 2010 to 73 this year, falling far behind the Latin American countries that lead in the ranking—Chile, at 22, and Uruguay, at 25. José Arthur Giannotti, a well-known Brazilian professor of philosophy, said in a recent interview that while corruption is a universal problem, it’s a continuing challenge in Brazil because of its “pervasiveness” in public office. Asked about solutions, he suggested offending government officials should be punished immediately, but not jailed. “Otherwise,” he says, “Brazil would become an enormous prison.”