Fernando Collor was the first president elected by Brazilians following 21 years of military dictatorship. Early in his presidency he was accused of taking money in exchange for political influence. The impeachment process began in December of 1992 and less than three years into his term in office, Collor resigned. A senate commission found that he had indeed engaged in political corruption, and he was banned from holding public office for eight years. In 2006 with his eligibility restored, Collor ran for and won a seat in the Brazilian Senate, the seat he currently holds, affording him the opportunity to vote in favor of President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment 24 years after his own. To bring this anecdote full circle in another way, in 2015 Collor was implicated in the massive anti-corruption investigation known as Operation Lava Jato (Portuguese for Car Wash), accused of the same offense that initiated his impeachment so many years before.
Corruption has been an unfortunate, but undeniable, part of Brazilian “politics as usual” for as long as most can remember. To many Brazilians separating the two would be impossible. They have grown accustomed to political misconduct, and have lived with so many dirty politicians that many have simply come to expect it. Governmental corruption is not outrageous, it’s the way things are. This acceptance on the part of many, though certainly not all, Brazilians has bred a sort of complacency, leading them to forgive — or perhaps forget — politicians’ misdeeds rather easily, a fact to which the Collor story can certainly attest. Where this forgiveness comes from is difficult to pinpoint, but it is certainly abetted by the fact that most feel corruption is such an endemic problem that fighting it is futile. So Brazilian politics has gone for generations, but that all may be changing before our eyes.
The current Lava Jato investigation has centered upon two types of corruption, both rampant in the Brazilian political system: undeclared campaign contributions and bribery. Though the two issues are being lumped together in many cases (The Economist, Conviction), the first generally deals with wealthy people or corporations donating secretly, and thus illegally, to a particular party or candidate to see that it wins office, presumably expecting a certain degree of influence thereafter. The second involves politicians receiving money or other benefits in exchange for some kind of public good. This happens when a private company pays a politician, or perhaps a number of them, to ensure that its likely inflated bid for some public project is accepted. Both are harmful to democratic processes, and both are abundant in Brazilian politics.
Beginning with campaign finance, regulating contributions poses a serious challenge, one that the Brazilian government has been attempting to address, though the effectiveness of its methods is questionable. The electoral system itself may be somewhat culpable for creating this problem, as “lower-house deputies, like senators, represent whole states rather than districts, which makes campaigns expensive, encourages corruption and weakens bonds between voters and their representatives” (The Economist, Upgrading). Be that as it may, corporate donations to political campaigns were declared illegal in 2015, after the 2014 presidential campaign saw 95% of its funding come from large companies (Boadle).
While this can be seen as a win for those who loathe the domination of electoral politics at the hands of dreaded “special interests,” simply banning such donations may not truly put Brazilian elections back in the hands of the people. The real effect of this legislation, according to journalist Anthony Boadle, has been that Brazilian elections, whether state, local or federal, are often largely controlled by rich candidates — individuals can donate up to 10% of their wealth to their campaign — or non-corporate organizations, such as evangelical churches, organizing funding for particular candidates. These may not be special interests, per se, but it seems that rich people and large organizations still wield an outsize proportion of control. Therefore, while corporate hands may be kept out of the proverbial cookie jar, it is questionable whether such elections are truly democratic. Furthermore, this legislation has no affect upon contributions made in secret, which are difficult, perhaps impossible, to legislate away.
The bribery schemes upon which Lava Jato is focused will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this post. At this point it will suffice to say that the scandals have embroiled and significantly disrupted the Brazilian state-run oil company (Petrobras), one of the country’s largest construction companies (Odebrecht), and the engineering industry in the country in general. This is by no means an exhaustive list. To give an idea of just how big this bribery issue is, it has thus far resulted in legal issues not only in Brazil, but in the United States as well. The US Department of Justice reached a settlement with Odebrecht, along with petrochemical giant, Braskem, for $3.5 billion, because both companies have issued securities in the United States whose values were found to have been affected by the illegal activities that were taking place in Brazil (The Economist, Brazil’s). Needless to say, the settlement payment has had major effects upon both companies.
The issues presented by corruption do not end there. The Brazilian President himself, Michel Temer, has been unable to avoid being caught up in these issues, and it has looked at various times like they might cost him an opportunity to finish out his term (Rousseff’s term, really) as president. In June of 2017 Temer was charged with accepting huge bribes from JBS, the largest meatpacking company in the world, and “orchestrating an $11.5 billion scheme with JBS.” JBS executives testified that Temer facilitated tax breaks and favorable loans for the company in exchange for money (Lopes, June 29). Moreover, tapes, which may have been doctored, appear to show Temer encouraging Joesley Batista — son of the JBS founder, one of its executives, and himself a Lava Jato target — to continue payments to former House Speaker, Eduardo Cunha, as he sits in prison, to keep him from informing on other politicians, presumably including Temer himself. This kind of back room dealing has, by all accounts, been essentially normal in Brazilian politics for a long time. The Lava Jato probe and corresponding waves of popular protest provide some indication that politics as usual may be changing. More on that in the next section of this post.
That Temer is in a tenuous position goes without saying. His approval rating, which started out low after he took over for Rousseff in August of 2016, has dropped like a rock and stood at around 5% in August of 2017. He is a career politician at a time when career politicians are extremely unpopular in Brazil. Add the corruption charges to his minuscule approval rating, and there is more reason to impeach Temer in 2017 than there was to remove Rousseff a little over a year before. Be that as it may, he seems to have congressional support to finish out the term. An August, 2017 vote to allow indictment — sitting presidents, once they have been charged with a crime, cannot be indicted without congressional permission — was not close, even though 80% of Brazilians are in favor of Temer standing trial (Lopes, August 2). This could be a testament to his ability to curry favor among the congressmen with whom he has so much history and so many relationships. It could be that the congress wants to continue with Temer’s economic austerity agenda, specifically entitlement reform. (Economic reforms are sorely needed and will be discussed in the next section.) It could be that they are trying to avoid the chaos likely to accompany a second impeachment in less than two years. Or it could be that this is Congress’ way of stemming the tide of the corruption clean-up by standing in the way of the justice system. Whatever the explanation, it is difficult to say whether Temer’s holding onto office is a reason for hope or skepticism.
What is certain is that in a time of anti-corruption fervor in Brazil, it is ironic that one president (Rousseff) with no direct link to corruption would be impeached while another who has been formally charged and indicted for graft would be allowed to finish out her term. Is progress against corruption really being made? Enter Operation Lava Jato.
Boadle, Anthony. "Millionaires, Evangelicals Benefit from Brazil Campaign Funds Ban." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 29 Sept. 2016. Web. 28 July 2017.
"Brazil's Gargantuan Corruption Scandal Goes Global." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 July 2017.
"Conviction of Lula and the Future of Brazil's Political Purge, The.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 15 July 2017. Web. 18 July 2017.
Lopes, Marina. “Brazilian President Temer Survives a Vote to Suspend Him on Corruption Charges.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Aug. 2017.
Lopes, Marina. "Charged with Corruption, Brazil’s President Could Be Saved by Politicians Also under Suspicion." The Washington Post. WP Company, 29 June 2017. Web. 29 June 2017.
"Upgrading Brazil's Political Class." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 30 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 July 2017.