Archive | June, 2011

Brazil’s Congress: Paying for Consensus

29 Jun

Brazilians have a saying, that every corruption scandal “ends in pizza.” The malfeasant and the enforcer settle things by sharing a meal and leaving behind what brought them together in the first place. Unlike other Latin American elites, the Brazilian elite peculiarly tend towards consensus as opposed to hot-headed conflict. Rather than incriminate each other, they let each other off. Rather than fight, they separate.

The Brazilian Congress: Consensus or Collusion?

Parties Galore

There is no place that reflects this behavior more powerfully than the Brazilian National Legislature. No one has ever been legally sanctioned for an ethics violation in the Brazilian Congress, despite legislators’ infamous shenanigans. Call this facet of political inaction, “impunity through consensus.”

The cost of making laws in Brazil provides yet another example. More than 85 percent of all legislation passed by Congress originates in the Executive Branch, but legislators think themselves important enough that they raised their salaries a hefty 62 percent on one of the last days of the 2010 legislature. That means that legislators in Latin America’s most expensive parliament (on a per capita basis) and in its most unequal country, now bring home approximately US$170,000 per year (R$26.7K/month), when a person earning the minimum wage earns less than US$3500 annually (R$545/month).

Assigning Blame for Blackmail?

When there are 23 parties to point the finger at, it’s kind of difficult to assign blame. What’s more, nine out of ten parties don’t have a chance of winning a presidential election, so they’re willing to take a hit to their reputations once in a while. Hence Brazil’s Congress understandably gets away with things that simply would not fly in other democracies.

Today, the government’s majority coalition in the Chamber of Deputies blackmailed the President it nominally supports. Legislators threatened to bring Congress to a standstill if  the President does not disburse the remainder of the 2009 budget, what they refer to here as “the rest to pay” (“restos a pagar”). Because of the slow pace of contracting, previous years’ budgets leave residuals. This year it’s almost US$3 billion dollars, or $4.6 billion Reales. These funds are typically used to buy political support through pork-barrel spending, but Rousseff declared she would end the disbursement of contracts on June 30th. Party leaders, however, warn that this course of action will be met by a general strike: the President’s urgent legislation will simply not be voted on. This legislation includes the infamous decree, 527/11, which aims to expedite building and infrastructure contracts for the 2012 World Cup and 2016 Olympics (at the cost of transparency).

Demanding pork in return for not stonewalling the President’s priorities pays homage to traditions of consensus-making: most every legislator in the governing coalition is holding strong to the threat of blackmail. At least they have not threatened to vote against the President’s priorities.

Avoiding Internal Conflicts: Start a New Party

The inertial pull toward consensus is so strong that instead of having parties rife with infighting, you have breakaways– new parties, which eventually cooperate with the parties they left, forming voting blocks. There are now 23 parties in the Chamber of Deputies and counting. The illustration presented includes a few salient voting blocks.

The newest breakaway party is the PDB, which split from the DEM following its involvement in a vote-buying racket in the Federal District. Now Marina Silva may start her own party, reports the Globo. Silva is the Green Party (PV) candidate who garnered more than 20 million votes in the 2010 presidential election, placing a solid third. The presidential candidate and her allies object to the way the party is run: the Greens’ 12-year president, José Luiz Penna, controls appointments and chooses candidates undemocratically, without  primaries. Perhaps more importantly, Silva objects to the alliances the PV has been forced to make in order to exercise any political clout.

Consensus at a Cost

Unsavory alliances are the price to be paid for a party system that privileges consensus over other priorities, such as accountability and responsiveness. The largest party in the Chamber of Deputies has 17 percent of the vote (the PT), forcing the President’s party to make deals with multiple others. Loyalty tends to be skin-deep. Political scientists have blamed the pork-based consensus-building process of the Brazilian Congress for bloated budgets and slow policy-making. The perks of a system built on consensus may also explain why legislators have resisted accountability measures, such a freedom of information law. Senators have preferred to cloak Brazil in secrecy than than reveal past and present abuses. They defend the  peace, the reigning consensus– but at a great, great cost.

Freedom of Information Bill in Jeopardy as Rousseff Backtracks

17 Jun

[Published on by Greg Michener]

President Dilma Rousseff reversed her support for expedited passage of a Brazilian freedom of information law this week, ceding to Senators’ desire to reappraise the law and include weakening amendments. The proposed changes to bill 41/2010 aim to eliminate time limits on how long information can be classified as secret and held from the public. Such amendments would contravene regional and national legal guarantees, in addition to delaying and enfeebling a prospective freedom of information law.

About-face Casts Doubt on Open Government Partnership and International Seminar

The government’s decision is a surprising about-face. Rousseff initially sought enactment of a freedom of information law on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day. This earlier commitment to transparency coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit and his invitation for Brazil to co-chair the Open Government Partnership, due to be announced at the inauguration of the United Nations in September of this year. While casting doubt on Brazil’s role within this promising initiative, Rousseff’s actions also put into question the purpose of an International Seminar on Access to Public Information due to be held in Brasilia in a month’s time, on the 7th and 8th of July.

Transparency as a Priority?

Brazil is only one of a few remaining countries in the Americas continuing to hold out against a freedom of information law, the others being Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Over the last ten years eleven countries in the region have adopted laws, including Panama (2002), Peru (2002), Mexico (2002), the Dominican Republic (2004), Ecuador (2004), Honduras (2006), Nicaragua (2007), Guatemala (2008), Uruguay (2008), Chile (2008), and most recently, El Salvador, in March 2011.[1] Rousseff’s actions, which will delay and jeopardize the integrity of Brazil’s prospective freedom of information law, have led Brazil advocate organizations Artigo XIX, Conectas, and ABRAJI, to issue statements condemning the move.

Bowing to Pressures in the Senate

Rousseff’s decision bows to the wishes of Senate President, José Sarney, and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Fernando Collor (1990-92). Both politicians are ex-presidents, Sarney having presided from 1985 to 1990 and Collor from 1990 to 1992, before he was impeached on charges of corruption and influence trafficking. Both Senators are also regarded as transparency-adverse chieftains (coronels) from poor northeastern states, where they exercise enormous political and economic control. Senator Sarney justified his adherence to the current policy of “eternal secrecy” (sigilo eterno) by explaining: “Lately, all of us have been beating up on our country. Let’s embrace the country and preserve what it has. We won’t open up those wounds from the past, from our history.”[2]

Senators Collor and Sarney

The reversal represents an apparent effort to maintain the coherence of Rousseff’s majority coalition in the Senate, placating powerful leaders. But President Rousseff’s compromises are also causing internal frictions within her own party. The leader of the President’s Worker’s Party (PT) in the Senate, Humberto Costa, told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, “the PT does not agree with changes to the project, because it is not in favor of eternal secrecy.” Any changes in the Senate would then need to be approved in the Chamber of Deputies before a law could be passed. Rousseff has made calls to set the bill aside for a few months, which suggests the law may not be passed until late 2011 or even 2012, going into operation a year later– almost too late to scrutinize infrastructure projects now underway for the World Cup (2014), the Olympics (2016), and Brazil’s aggressive hydro dam projects.

Eternal Secrecy Contravenes Regional and National Law

If the proposed weakening amendments are successful, they will snub the Organization of American States’ 2010 Inter-American Court’s decision, Gomes Lund v. Brasil (2010), which mandates that Brazil open all information relevant to the investigation of human rights abuses. It also runs contrary to the creation of a Truth Commission, a measure now being debated in the Lower House of parliament. Finally, eternal secrecy stands in contravention of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, articles 5 and 37, both of which guarantee the right to access public information.

[1] For more information on the conditions that led to enactment of these laws, see

[2] “Ultimamente, todos nós nos acostumamos a bater um pouco no nosso país. Vamos amar um pouco o país e preservar o que ele tem. Não vamos abrir essas feridas do passado, da história.” Reported by the Globo Newspaper, 14 June, 2011. Available at:

Dealing with Overcrowding in Brazil’s Prisons: Innovative Legislation Passed

10 Jun

Brazilian legislators have passed an innovative law to deal with overcrowding and high recidivism in Brazil’s prisons: one day less in prison for every 12 hours spent in the classroom, reports Folha de São Paulo. As world population continues to surge past 7 billion people, prison overcrowding and repeat incarceration have become major policy problems around the world.

Statistics from a 2010 report show that there are 440,864 prisoners in Brazil’s prison system, and a total of 299,597 spots, meaning that prisons are 140,000 over capacity. The law already provides for one day less in prison for every three days of performed labor, but the new measures, introduced by legislator Cristovam Buarque(PDT-DF), will accelerate the pace at which prisoners may shorten their sentences.

Overcrowding in Brazilian Prisons

Almost a quarter of prisoners, or 97,050, are involved in programs where labor is performed in exchange for time, but only about 10 percent (44,463 prisoners) enroll in educational programs. Even though less one percent of prisoners have completed high school–1,860 prisoners–literacy rates are surprising high: a mere 6 percent of inmates are illiterate, almost half the national average for all Brazilian citizens. The recently passed law, soon to be signed by President Rousseff, may provide the needed stimulus to encourage Brazil’s 411,157 incarcerated men and 29,707 women to sign-up on to educational initiatives, which will apparently be available both in-house and by distance.

Incarceration rates in Brazil are still relatively low compared to other system. Point-in-case, U.S. prisons contain more than 5 times the number of incarcerated men than Brazil’s, at between 2.3 and 2.4 million, according to 2010 figures published by the Economist. These numbers are jarring, especially given that the total national population of the U.S. is less than twice that of Brazil. For an inside look at the U.S. prison system, see Prison Movement’s Weblog.

Why the Media Have Made the Palocci Scandal into a Crisis

6 Jun

Research shows that the news media’s issue-attention cycle tends to be short, averaging about three days for a major story. When it diverges from this norm, you can bet that the event is either truly sensational or else the media has a vested interest in it.

In the case of the first major ‘crisis’ to hit the Rousseff Administration, it appears that zealous coverage of a scandal–for more than two weeks–can be explained principally by the former.

The Scandal

The scandal concerns Antonio Palocci, the President’s Chief of Staff (akin to a prime minister in the Brazilian system), and the issue at hand began with Palocci’s personal estate, which in four years experienced fantastic multiplications. From well under half a million dollars in 2006, by 2011 Palocci’s fortune had expanded twenty-fold, effectively transforming a professional politician into a multimillionaire in less than half a decade. Even more suspicious, most of the money was made in ‘consulting fees’ during the 2010 presidential election.

To be sure, the rapid enrichment of a once-finance minister (2003-2006) deserves investigation, especially since Palocci’s wealth began to skyrocket just after he became one of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s sacrificial sheep, resigning in the heat of the 2006 Mensalão Scandal.

What is Special About the Palocci Case?

Yet by the same token, no shortage of untoward behavior, questionable enrichment, or murky contracts can be found in Brazilian politics. It just so happens that the media has arranged its soldiers along this story line and appears unwilling to let it go out with a whimper, unlike the vast majority of stories conforming to this sordid genre.

Current media attention is not unjustified. ‘Influence trafficking’ pervades Brazilian politics and ought to be addressed, particularly at the highest levels of government where examples trickle down. Palocci also deserves scrutiny. The Minister’s record is spotty at best, and Rousseff ought to have known better than to bring back a skeleton of Lula’s administration—even if the appointment was Lula’s prerogative, as opposed to her own.

Hidden Agenda: the Forestry Code?

But the dogged media focus goes far beyond ethics and bad apples. The issue is inextricably connected to one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Rousseff administration will consider—the Forestry Code (O Código Forestal) now being considered in the legislature. As a representative for the government’s hard-line stance against illegal deforestation and for conservation, Palocci is an easy target for those seeking to express their dissatisfaction with official prerogatives. Many legislators seek a more ‘relaxed’ Forestry Code—the code of agribusiness, mining, hydro, and logging interests– an inestimably powerful lobby here in Brazil.

Even the government’s major ally in Congress, the PMDB, supported weakening amendments to the Forestry Code. The PMDB’s perfidy resulted in a tense exchange between Rousseff’s Vice-President, Michel Temer (PMDB), and Palocci at the end of May, undoubtedly kindling incendiary media coverage.

Opportunities for Media Criticism

Fueling this drama is the media’s persistent and sympathetic coverage of calls for a Palocci crucification. To hit at the government right now is opportune. President Rousseff has demonstrated an unsteady command thus far; her public appearances and displays of authority have been infrequent and unimpressive. The Rousseff government supports environmental legislation that is unpopular with big businesses and industries, many of whom are the media’s top advertisers. Most media outlets also tend to lean right and, in addition to supporting business interests, claim to defend ethical behavior in government. These, in short, are a few of the reasons why the media has marched the Palocci affair into the ground.

Lessons on the Media

What can be taken from all of this? First, the media chooses its battles opportunistically and this one just happens to runs along several strategic frontiers. Second, and most regrettably, zealous coverage of the Palocci scandal demonstrates the irony of a media that performs spectacularly as a watchdog once in a while, but that constantly lacks the capacity to act as guide dog. In other words, while outlets indirectly support calls for a Palocci resignation by giving critics air-time, they are short on lending a voice to advocates trying to prevent ethical lapses from occurring in the first place. The Folha de São Paulo did provide some interesting coverage on consulting fees in light of Palocci’s millionaire earnings, but these too fall short of looking at the implications and solutions of current public policies and political configurations.

Ironically, a freedom of information law sits in the Senate awaiting passage and, despite a rich opportunity to broach themes related to transparency, the media has barely uttered a whisper about the measure over the past weeks—even though Congress was supposed to pass the law more than 20 days ago, on May 18th. Noise about what holds Brazil back must be balanced by vested coverage of how to move it forward.