Archive | March, 2011

Considering the Diversion of Public Monies in Brazil -A Cool US$35 Billion for Starters

31 Mar

US$35 billion of public monies stolen. A colossal affront to the cities and country they work for? Yes. Preventable? Not yet.

The most significant news item on the diversion of public monies I have seen in some time appeared in yesterday’s Globo as the lead opinion piece: “The Indicators Show Billions Stolen.” The article cites grim figures: of 131 municipalities audited by the Comptroller General, 90 percent showed irregularities; and it is estimated that municipal officials and their accomplices steal 30% of federal and state transfers– US$ 35 billion dollars (R$60 billion) a year. As the author notes, this sum could tidily pay for Brazil’s primary schooling goals, or a presidential term’s worth of Bolsa familia conditional cash transfers –2.5 percent of Brazil’s annual GDP, which goes to its 44 million poorest (11 million families).

Minor in raw numbers, the second news item is equally disturbing. In the poor state of Amazonas, a Federal Police operation on ‘over-billing,’ found that the State University of Amazonas paid US$380,000 (R$615,000) for a website that should have cost US$3000. The contracting official and contractor would have split the excess funds.

In most advanced democracies, citizens, journalists, public advocates or competing firms tend to be the first to note over-billing or billing to nonexistent companies. But note how in both of these articles government entities did the auditing? Without a complete transparency infrastructure — the sort that can only be laid out by a comprehensive Freedom of Information Law — citizens will be unable to help government account for the $30 billion diverted by municipal governments and their co-conspirators. It’s also costly to have government officials do all the sleuthing.

Seeing as Brazilians labor under one of the heaviest tax burdens in the world, it’s about time to start ‘following the money’ and adopting the tools to do so. As the father of billionaire Eike Batista stated at an event I recently attended at the Rio de Janeiro Industrial Association (FIRJAN), the country cannot, should not, and need not go on “with the taxes of Switzerland and the services of Angola.” The country’s freedom of information law awaits passage in the Senate.

Considering Impunity in the Public Service

23 Mar

Today’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported that the President’s Commission on Public Ethics has issued an ‘ethical censure’ to Erenice Guerra, Dilma Rousseff’s chief lieutenant during her tenure as Chief of Staff for President Lula da Silva. Guerra resigned in shame following revelations of corruption, influence peddling to benefit family relatives, and prevarication. Today, I changed Guerra’s English Wikipedia entry to reflect this new development.

Erenice Guerra


Unfortunately, the only hope for true accountability is for Guerra to be brought to public trial by the news media and the power of the internet. But the association between President Rousseff and Guerra is so strong that the media is unlikely to make much of the case. What is there to make much of, in the first place? A slap on the wrist by a forgotten ‘Ethics Commission’?

In effect, the enforcement of ethics across Brazilian public institutions is woefully ineffective, i.e. they have resulted in no criminal sanctions to speak of. The Ethics Council in the Chamber of Deputies, for example, is composed of all the president’s men; that is to say that its composition reflects the partisan balance of power in the Chamber, which has proven to be a consistent majority for the President.  Notwithstanding serious misdoing, such as the monthly vote-buying scheme revealed in 2005 (the ‘mensalão’), ethics commissions have failed to bring transgressors to judgment with real fines, jail time, or punitive service.

A young Dilma was tortured by the Dictatorship

Impunity as an obstacle to the rule of law in Brazil will soon meet its next test,  a signature reform of Dilma Rousseff’s electoral platform, a Truth Commission. Now being debated in the Chamber of Deputies, a Truth Commission might once-and-for-all heal wounds left open by the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The first question is whether the Truth Commission can be successfully established. The second is whether it will have any effect.

This raises an interesting question. In a country where the rule of law is relatively well enforced in most areas of ‘higher law,’ why does it fail so spectacularly to bring public servants —those who make and enforce laws— to justice? Brazil is not alone here. According to U.S. Freedom of Information Legend Thomas Susman, the U.S. has not sanctioned a single official for unlawfully manipulating or withholding information from the public, a crime punishable in accordance with the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Such manipulation is widely documented, yet has never been acted upon.

The question, then, is what factors allow impunity to persist? Impunity, the exemption from punishment, frequently faces a first paradoxical hurdle: the very institutions in which transgressions take place are usually the ones responsible for enforcing the rules.

Don’t Read your Book in Our Library

18 Mar

Libraries have always counted among my favorite places, but I got quite a shock when I visited a beautiful (functioning) colonial library in downtown Rio the other day, the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (below). Ficheiro:RealGabinetePortuguesLeitura1.jpg

I entered the library and looked for an electricity outlet to plug in my computer. Unsure of whether the outlets I found worked, I approached the attendant.

“We don’t have internet wireless,” she said in an unsteady English. I responded in Portuguese,

“That’s okay, I’m just wondering if you have a place to plug in my computer.”

“We only have one outlet, and it’s occupied,” she said, looking for a reaction. There was none.

“That’s okay, I’ll read a book I brought,” I replied. She looked at me disapprovingly.

“You can’t bring your own book here.”

I looked at her incredulous.

“This is a library, correct?” I asked.


“Well, you’re saying I can’t read a book in a library?”

“You can only read the books we have here, that’s the policy everywhere.”

“Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard of this type of policy. I’ve lived in several countries and never heard of such a thing…” I paused. “But it’s okay, I understand.” I said, and turned to leave.

“I understand.” I said, as I walked out the door.