With the focus on Trump and his associates in the American press, there is a democracy even more corrupt that receives little attention. In fact, Brazil makes the U.S. seem clean by comparison. A relatively young democracy that emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985, it is the world’s fifth largest nation in population and land mass. Corruption is endemic here, involving every level and agency of government.
An article in Forbes noted that corruption in Brazil might cost the nation $53 billion in 2013 alone. The report described a monthly government payment scandal, with public funds having been diverted to buy political support for the regime of President Luiz da Silva (Lula) and pay off election debts. The investigation started in 2005 by the Public Ministry, the Federal Police, and the Brazilian Court of Audit, revealed that $43 billion of public money was believed to have been siphoned off in the cash-for-votes scandal.
Under President Dilma Rousseff in 2015, an investigation into a kickback scheme was found to involve dozens of politicians and Petrobas, the state-run oil company. At least $800 million in bribes were paid to prominent lawmakers. The leaders of Brazil’s lower House and Senate were targets of the probe along with Senator Fernando Collar who was forced to resign as president in 1992 because of another corruption scandal. Also under investigation were 21 federal deputies and 12 senators, though that number was expected to increase. The Senate head, Renan Calheiros, had previously resigned as Senate leader in 2007, because of involvement in a different scandal. However, he returned to his post after being re-elected by his constituents in 2013, disregarding his past actions.
In August of 2015, prosecutors revealed that Eduardo Cunha, the Speaker of the lower House of Congress, had pocketed at least $40 million for himself and his associates in bribes and kickbacks from Petrobas. Cunha was able to launder the money through an evangelical megachurch he controlled.
Rousseff saw her rating drop with calls for impeachment from Brazilian citizens and opposition parties when she appointed former President Luiz da Silva to be her Chief of Staff. She did this to provide him with immunity from criminal charges, as he had been intricately involved in the massive Petrobas scandal. However, a federal judge subsequently blocked him from taking the position Rousseff had offered.
In December 2015, the Speaker of the lower House, Eduardo Cunha (accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes, and with a secret Swiss bank account), initiated the impeachment proceedings against President Rouseff. She was charged with using funds from state bank accounts to manage budget shortfalls and not in any self- enrichment schemes like her accuser.
Subsequently, the lower House of Congress voted to impeach Rouseff. Rousseff blamed the move on the corruption investigation her administration had pursued, implicating many top politicians and businessmen. She said that her corrupt enemies were hoping to limit the probe with her being out of office. Indeed, her vice-president, Michel Temer, from the PMDB Party, who took over as president, also appeared to be involved in corrupt activities, as do the leading members of his party, cabinet officers, and Congressional officials.
The crusading anti-corruption judge, who was investigating former President da Silva, was removed from the case in April 2016 by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, transferring the jurisdiction to another justice. This suggests that corruption is also tainting the Tribunal. In May 2016, Cunha was ordered by Brazil’s Supreme Court to give up his position as Speaker of the lower House of Congress because of corruption charges. The PMDB Party which is now ruling, appears to be equally or more corrupt than Rosseff’s Worker’s Party which they will be replacing.
In fact, Temer’s anti-corruption minister, Fabiano Silveira, was forced to step down at the end of May 2016 when a covert recording showed he had tried to obstruct the Petrobas investigation. Temer’s planning minister, Romero Juca, also resigned when another recording revealed that he wanted Rousseff out in order to block the inquiry. A number of other senior political figures, including former president Jose Sarney, appear to have participated in the Petrobas bribery scheme as well. Temer himself has been embroiled in a different corruption case with calls for him to leave office or to face impeachment like Rousseff.
Companies looking for business with Petrobas have been paying 3 percent of the value of the contracts as bribes, with hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands. Much of this money went to politicians, political parties, and to President Rousseff’s re-election campaign. 60 percent of the 594 federal legislators who won large numbers of votes in the 2014 elections were under investigation as of April 2016 for an array of crimes. Besides bribery, these included illegal deforestation, electoral fraud, kidnapping, homicide, embezzlement, and torture. However, in spite of all the indictments, it is unusual for federal legislators to wind up in prison. They can avoid conviction given the special judicial standing members of Congress enjoy.
And in Brazil, as in other nations, politicians involved in corruption scandals are often re-elected to their previous posts. They may climb even higher in the government hierarchy and acquire more illegal compensation, their constituents ignorant of their actions or simply not caring (A universal problem with democracy).
A culture of corruption appears to be standard in Brazil, with 70 percent of respondents in a poll saying they would take illegal benefits if given the chance in a public job. Not only were politicians and businessmen on the take, but judges, prosecutors, policemen, and other public employees, were all involved. Electrobras, the nation’s biggest power utility, also seems to have had a system of bribes and kickbacks in place similar to Petrobas. And the political parties benefited greatly from all the infusions of cash. Four journalists who reported on corruption in Brazil were murdered in 2015, with none of the assailants arrested. Given the involvement of government officials at all levels and the apparent public indifference, stamping out corruption in Brazil will be an enormously difficult, if not impossible, task.
As Brazilians mourned the tragic deaths of one of their soccer teams in an airplane crash at the end of November 2016, Congress passed legislation in the early morning hours that would hamper the power of prosecutors and judges investigating corrupt politicians. This was done when the attention of the nation was directed elsewhere, to protect legislators who were voting and faced charges. The president of Brazil’s Association of Federal Judges called it an attack on the nation’s democracy. Even more disturbing to the process of rooting out corruption, the Supreme Court Judge in charge of investigating the scandals, Teori Zavascki, was killed in a small plane crash, on January 20, 2017. It was unclear whether this was an accident, or he had been assassinated.
Advances made through democratic policies in Brazil could be wiped out through the scourge of corruption and graft that has infested politicians in all of the nation’s political parties on both the right and the left. No solution seems at hand.
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