Political corruption has plagued Brazil for much of its history, despite a successful transition to democracy. Politicians accused of corruption rarely face consequences, be it fines, jail time, or returning embezzled funds to government coffers. In fact, disgraced officials accused of corruption are often re-elected or return to working for the government, even some of the most notorious offenders. As a result, the Ficha Limpa bill received widespread support and was subsequently passed into law, which aims to prevent politicians accused of corruption from being allowed to run for public office. Unfortunately, like some other Brazilian laws, it hasn't quite "stuck" yet - the Supreme Court ruled in March that it would only go into effect in 2012, and that it would not be applicable to the 2010 elections, but only issued the ruling after the fact. Though this allowed a number of officials accused of corruption to take office, a number of elected senators are still awaiting decisions from the courts in order to take office, including Senator Cássio Cunha Lima and Senator Jader Barbalho. Last week, federal congresswoman Jaqueline Roriz, who was actually caught red-handed in a massive Brasília corruption scandal in 2009, was absolved by the House of Representatives, but will now have to face trial in the Supreme Court. But the Congress's decision to absolve her angered many Brazilians, setting off a new effort by citizens to combat corruption after many years of what some interpret as generalized indifference.
Perhaps part of the new impetus to fight corruption was a trickle-down effect. President Dilma has taken on corruption as a cornerstone of her administration, sacking her chief of staff and several ministers accused of corruption in the first year of taking office. Also, 30 members of the Ministry of Tourism were arrested recently after a Federal Police investigation that showed the ministry was embezzling government funds. This blunt, no-tolerance approach is quite different from her predecessor, who walked on eggshells to accomodate everyone and to maintain coalitions. Dilma has alienated many officials in her sweep, and some political parties have left her coalition. As The Economist explained in "Dilma tries to drain the swamp":
"In all this Ms Rousseff is slowly putting her own stamp on a government that she inherited from her predecessor and political mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But the multiple scandals are straining her ramshackle coalition. This consists of over a dozen parties, ranging from communist to right-wing populist, that between them give her the nominal support of around three-quarters of Congress. The main interest of some of the coalition’s smaller members is not ideology but the extraction of jobs and money—for personal gain or party financing—from government. They are annoyed that Ms Rousseff has tried to rewrite the rules of the game."
In addition, some political observers note that if Dilma is unsuccessful in maintaining amicable relations with Congress, she could potentially lose a shot at reelection in 2014. In fact, Reuters reported that she has not yet decided if she will even run again, or if she will allow Lula to return to run for a third term. [Update 9/6: Today, Lula announced that he will not run in 2014, though time will tell if he ultimately makes that decision]
Despite making some old-timers uncomfortable, others are eager to see Dilma take on corruption. She was lauded in a Financial Times op-ed last week, which also mentioned that an estimated 2 percent of Brazil's GDP is lost to corruption each year, between R$50 and R$84 billion. Also last week, a Brazilian senator proposed a bill that would create a National Corruption Day, in protest of Roriz's recent exoneration. In addition, Estadão recently reported that infamous São Paulo politician Paulo Maluf, who is wanted in the U.S. for funneling kickbacks through New York banks, could potentially return US$13 million to São Paulo state coffers if he makes a deal with the New York prosecutor. But $13 million is just a drop in the bucket - he and his family are estimated to have over US$100 million in offshore accounts.
So with all of these infuriating cases and impunity, why don't Brazilians protest? Spanish journalist Juan Arias asked that very question in a controversial op-ed piece in July, setting off a nationwide reaction. Political blogger Greg Michener offers a number of reasonable answers for why Brazilians have not traditionally protested corruption, including Brasília's geographic distance from major cities, Globo's all-reaching influence, and the culture of consensus. [Update 9/6: Greg has a great post about the new anti-corruption movement today - read it here] But Arias' piece really touched a nerve. Some were angry with him for criticizing Brazil, a natural reaction when an outsider makes a negative public statement about Brazil. But others were invigorated, and began organizing.
Here, a relatively new phenomenon came into play that could help explain why Brazilians haven't organized en masse specifically against corruption in the past. Using technology and social media, Brazilians discussed Jaqueline Roriz, Arias' "accusations," and the urge to do something more. Soon, thousands of Brazilians across the country had signed on to attend protests on September 7th, Brazilian Independence Day, in what they're calling "The Day of Indignation." Protests against corruption will take place in major cities and in many Brazilian states, though some organizers are using the Roriz case as the major focus of the marches. Facebook is the main social network being used to organize protesters, using public invitations to rally potential participants and to quickly disseminate information. (This is especially interesting given that Facebook has supposedly surpassed Orkut in number of users in Brazil, and because Facebook's invitation mechanism is much better than Orkut's) I originally found out about one of the marches from Facebook, after seeing that a friend in Rio, a young professional who recently gave birth to twins, is planning on attending the march with her husband.
Seeing this kind of indignant reaction is very exciting, even if some of it seems to be a reaction to Roriz's exoneration in Congress and not some of the other big corruption cases. While Ficha Limpa was an important accomplishment and a big step in the right direction, hopefully the next step will be to attack impunity, not just in terms of political corruption but across the board. One salient, recent example: the Rio de Janeiro public prosecutor closed 96 percent of the state's homicide cases this year, simply to meet a national goal to "conclude" all open murder cases since 2007 - even though the national goal was set in an attempt to combat impunity. The same trend is happening with state prosecutors throughout the country. If thousands of killers can literally get away with murder, what can you expect of some of the country's most powerful politicians?