Brazil’s Trial of the Century

5 Oct

Click the pic to go to the Editorial

Op-Ed on Mensalão – Al Jazeera

18 Aug

I did a lot of thinking about impunity in Brazil, and this is part of the result. Click the pic for full piece.

Brazil’s Open Government Shock Treatment – Essay

27 Jun

19 Jun

Historic Day for Truth and Transparency

16 May

Half a year ago I wrote about a historic week, the week of October 23rd. Brazil’s National Congress enacted a freedom of information law and a truth commission — two brave policy advances for a country marked by legacies of secrecy and authoritarianism. Today was a similarly historic day: the freedom of information law and the Truth Commission went into effect. President Dilma Rousseff struggled to hold back tears as she officially convened the Truth Commission.

Tearful Truth Commission Beginnings

A survivor of torture during Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, Rousseff had until today refrained from emotional displays on the issue. The Truth Commission is not only a politically sensitive topic, but populist appeals for ‘truth’ or ‘revenge’ may rouse the ire of powerful ancien régime elements, giving Rousseff problems inside the Executive Branch and, legislatively, inside Congress. Today, the emotion could not be withheld. The video and an approximate transcript follow:

Brazil deserves the truth, the new generations deserve the truth, and above all, deserving of the truth are those who lost friends and family and who continue to suffer as if they die with every new day (tears and applause).

This is the most dramatic footage I have ever seen of President Dilma, and its authenticity and poignancy will undoubtedly help the President secure even greater popular support. Rousseff enjoys lofty approval ratings of 64 percent, according to the latest DataFolha polls.

Freedom of Information

I have been blitzed by requests for interviews about the freedom of information law lately, and over the last month I have spoken at three government events and been filmed four times. I have decided that I do not much like cameras for now and am beginning to sympathize with politicians who claim that the press often takes statements out of context. An interview I did for the O Globo newspaper misrepresented the interview, portraying solely the negative aspects of Brazil’s freedom of information infrastructure. Nonetheless, these last few months have provided me with a few tentative conclusions regarding the beginnings of Brazil’s freedom of information regime:

1. A lack of awareness and knowledge about the law is generalized, inside and outside of the public administration.

2. Most government officials are well-disposed towards the law, but have not devoted enough resources or attention to its implementation. According to personal government sources, the oversight body — The Comptroller General of the Union — has dedicated a team of 11 to the law. This is a long shot away from serious commitment in a country of two hundred million. Likewise, state and municipal governments are still trying to figure things out, and everyone from archivists, to administrators, to top officials have expressed their unpreparedness. While generalized ignorance and unpreparedness are lamentable, the willingness to be frank about that ignorance and to look for help provide hope.

3. Officials are worried about the “abuse” of the freedom of information law – a very common preoccupation, as any transparency advocate is well aware. This fear is what may also tip officials towards non-disclosure. Government control, whether in the form of encouraging a pliant press or ‘channeling’ participation through corporatist vehicles such as unions and government-civil society deliberative events, is part of the political culture. Freeing information means letting go. Simply put, if Brazil’s freedom of information law is going to work, this political culture must change.

This is a multi-generational project that has finally just begun.

Editorial in Al Jazeera – A variation on the last post…

23 Apr

Click the pic.

Brazil, Transparency and the Brasil Aberto Movement (Open Brazil Movement)

16 Apr

If President Dilma Rousseff’s government can meet expectations, Rousseff might just be remembered as Brazil’s first ‘transparency president’.

The expectations of which I speak are not just those of Brazil – they are the world’s. On April 17th and 18th, more than 50 countries will meet in Brasilia to unveil their commitments to the Open Government Partnership (OGP)– the first ever multi-national, multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to advancing transparency, access to information, citizen participation and accountability in government. First announced at the opening of the United Nations in September of 2011, the OGP represents a global paradigm shift towards greater transparency and more effective democratic governance.

Eyes will be on Brazil not only because of its position as co-leader of the Partnership, alongside the United States, but also because Brazil has created considerable expectations in the area of transparency policy over the last few years. In 2011 it created two more important expectations:  a freedom of information law and a Truth Commission.

 Today’s Launch of the Brasil Aberto Movement

For all of Brazil’s expectations, and for those of other countries in Latin America, a group of leading NGOs from around the region launched the Brasil Aberto movement today. The movement’s website – – is a space for citizens from around the region to monitor news on the OGP, governmental commitments, and to propose, vote and comment on measures to improve openness, transparency, and accountability in government. Most of the website’s content is in English, Portuguese and Spanish – maximizing viewership on a global scope is the first means by which Brasil Aberto seeks to ensure governments work for the OGP and the OGP works for citizens.

 Brazil’s Innovations

In the eyes of the world, Brazil has already achieved impressive good governance advances. It was one of the first nations to maintain open-expense-accounts through the Controladoria’s Geral da União’s Portal da Transparência. The lei complementar 131 of 2009 extended the obligation to post expenses on the web to municipal governments. Brazil was also one of the first countries in the world to experiment with participatory budgeting, most famously demonstrated by the city of Porto Alegre in the 1990s. Both of these initiatives contain serious shortcomings. But for the world they are and will remain truly innovative illustrations of Brazil’s commitment to more transparent and open government.

New Expectations

Over the last year Brazil has created even greater expectations. During the week of the 24th of October, a week that should go down in history as the week of Brazil’s ‘Great Opening’, the Brazilian Senate enacted a freedom of information law as well as a long-awaited Truth Commission. The first measure regulates a constitutional right, as stipulated by Articles 5 and 37 of the 1988 constitution. The second finally establishes a right to truth, opening Brazil up to itself after years of quiet anger and misgivings.

These two measures place enormous political expectations on Brazil, both at home and abroad. Whereas Brazil’s Transparency Portal and Participatory Budgeting were rather unique experiments, these new measures are international standards: more than 95 countries or 5.5 billion people already possess freedom of information laws, and more than a dozen countries have undertaken truth and reconciliation. Brazil’s performance will be measured, and its commitment to real transparency and openness cannot hide behind novelty.

The freedom of information law comes into effect on the 16th of May, exactly one month after the OGP, and it is manifestly clear that Brazil’s federal, state, and municipal governments still have far to go in terms of readiness. As for the Truth Committee, it has not even begun to operate.

 Public commitments vs. political and administrative action

Despite these mildly disappointing preliminary results, Brazil’s government is publicly committed to transparency and truth. President Rousseff, a survivor of the dictatorship, is believed to support the Truth Commission, albeit far too quietly for many advocates. As for the freedom of information law, Rousseff is considered the political architect of the measure, having introduced it to Congress in 2009 as Chief of Staff under President Lula. Jorge Hage, the Controlador Geral da República, has also played a very active role in voicing support for the freedom of information law and Brazil’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership more generally.

It is time to see these very public commitments translated into tangible administrative and political action. Serious efforts must be made to implement the freedom of information law. This means establishing information units across governmental entities, training public servants, and setting-up appropriate archiving, IT, and procedural systems. The Truth Commission must also be given the political authority to do what it was meant to do. A half-measure Truth Commission will only demonstrate that authoritarianism still prevents Brazil from becoming internally strong and a beacon of openness.

Soft Power, the Power of Open

The Open Government Partnership is Brazil’s chance to consolidate a position as a world leader in the area of transparency. This is true ‘soft power’, a power within Brazil’s reach. A commitment to transparency translates into strength on the international stage and at home. Transparency and access to information are critical for rooting-out corruption, creating greater efficiencies in government, empowering citizens with information, and diminishing information asymmetries that retard economic growth and public sector effectiveness. In short, improving transparency is the best way for Brazil to show itself and the world that it is a vital democracy committed to its people.

Brazil’s Growing Car Obsession

4 Mar

My wife Carolina and I so far managed to avoid buying a car here in Brazil. It’s not that we have a strong aversion to owning a car; it would be great to have a little ride for weekend jaunts, but it’s just impractical. Happily, the cost-benefit does not (yet) make sense.

My favorite vehicle for transport and public opinion

I walk back and forth to work in 15-20 minutes, and do my grocery shopping within a six block radius. If we’re doing a long-haul trip, we fly. If we’re doing a weekend-scenic trip, we rent or go with friends. To get around town or back and forth from the airport and bus terminals, I spend about $150 dollars on taxis per month.   If I were paying maintenance, depreciation (on cars that cost from a third to a half more than they do in other countries because of taxes and import tariffs), insurance, gas, and parking costs for a car, I calculate that I would be paying about five times what I now spend on transport. Cars are necessary at times, i.e. when you have small children (safety seats), or need to get out of town to some nearby remote location, but we’d all be better off using them less. Especially in Brazil.

I Am 3 Times More Likely to Die in a Traffic Accident in Brazil than in Canada

 Brazil’s road traffic accident rate is almost three times what it is in Canada, Japan or Sweden, at 24 deaths per 100,000, which according to one source,[1] is the third highest rate in the world. A recent research paper on the subject, by Giancarlo Bacchieri and Aluísio J D Barros, shows that the absolute numbers of accidents and deaths has gone up over the last ten years. Car deaths accounted for 22 percent of total deaths in Brazil during 2008, whereas they were 12 percent in 1998. Much of this increase is attributable to a sudden jump in the number of motorcycles on the road, according to the authors, as well as the persistence of drinking and driving.

No thanks

Brazil’s figures are nonetheless surprising. If not because I am nearly three times more likely to die in a traffic accident here in Brazil than at home in Canada, than at least because government initiatives to diminish accidents, such as a comprehensive traffic reform enacted in 1998, have so far failed to make significant inroads. Positively, Congress enacted a “zero tolerance” law in 2008 that may help diminish the number of accidents and deaths related to alcohol.

Highways and Drivers in Brazil

Despite the steady advances of GDP and government tax receipts, Brazilian highways remain poor in many parts of the country, even in the rich southeast. Brazil is not an easy place to build highways: the terrain is mountainous, and mountains tend to be covered in thick capes of soil which, especially when deforested, often collapse under the heavy rainfalls of the wet season. Rain also tends to wash out the substrate under asphalt, leading to potholes of ever-larger proportions. Add to this high levels of corruption and contractors that are widely believed to skimp on quality road construction materials, and you have a serious problem.

"Chaos" on Minas Gerais LMG-748

Here in Minas Gerais, mining trucks are believed to do considerable damage to public highways. Appropriate rail lines should have obviated the need for mining trucks altogether, but the rail lobby has not fared as well as the motor-vehicle lobby – as we who live in the Americas know all too well. I have never seen a weigh-station here in Brazil, a control mechanism that might prevent overweight trucks from wreaking havoc on roads and public safety more generally.

Finally, there are the drivers. As in North America, you have the truck drivers hopped-up on amphetamines for the long trips – always a source of danger. Here, you’ve also got a major problem with alcohol, as previously discussed. But especially prominent in Latin America – if not Latin countries more generally – is the sort of race-to-the-finish mentality on highways and even on city streets. People pass recklessly. They routinely break traffic rules. They want to show you up because they have a more expensive car. Or they want to show you down because they think they’re better, ballsier drivers. A lot of ego, a lot of risk, and a lot of accidents.

These are not just my own observations; renowned Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta recently released a book on Brazil’s car culture entitled, “Faith in God, and Foot to the Floor” in which he describes a driving culture in which even women act “masculine” to the extreme.

Traffic Jam-borees

Better time spent living

If not you’re not getting maimed in a traffic accident, you’re probably sitting in traffic. Exaggerations aside, Time magazine did distinguish São Paulo as the traffic-jam capital of the world in a 2008 article. The piece notes that Paulistas do everything in their cars – shave, create powerpoint presentations, apply makeup – not because they love their cars, but because they have to: traffic jams are a fact of life for those who cannot afford or are unwilling to reside close to work.

That Time article was written almost 4 years ago when Brazil’s per capita income was over a thousand reais below where it is now. Higher incomes, more cars. Although I have not been able to find any official numbers, several estimates serve to triangulate the approximate number of new cars entering São Paulo’s road network at somewhere around 1000 per day. And that’s just São Paulo. The number across Brazil has been estimated at 12,000 new cars per day. Brazil is now the sixth-largest producer of automobiles in the world, and gaining. Growth in public transport has not received the political attention needed to pose any challenge to the car industry. Go figure.

Current public transport infrastructure and efforts to diminish mounting traffic remain woefully inadequate in Brazil. São Paulo has just under 80 kilometers of rail metro.[2] Mexico City, a megalopolis of about the same size, has nearly 180 kilometers, which is closer to other megalopolises such as Tokyo (195 kms), Delhi (190 kms), or Hong Kong (174 kms). Heck, even Santiago – with less than half of São Paulo’s population – has a far more extensive metro system.

Metro expansions in Rio de Janeiro and other cities are currently making progress and more are planned, but the pace of expansion is simply not keeping up with population growth. Nor is it keeping up with the demands of the newly affluent. People will always want cars to show people they have a car. Conspicuous consumption is a fact of life all over the world, yet, as suggested by the region’s historically low savings rates, Latin American have a reputation for flaunting their wealth.


Not too many of these folks around

Just as reverence for the motor vehicle continues unabated, a peculiar disdain for bicyclists still abides among many Brazilians. Almost all of the regular bicycle commuters I know in Brazil have had bad accidents and unerringly curse motorists. Cyclists are given low priority, particularly commuting cyclists. An article in today’s Estado de São Paulo reported that 80 percent of São Paulo’s bicycle lanes are for leisure as opposed to commuting.

As my brother pointed out in a recent conversation about Latin American bicycle-disdain, the Americas have never really taken to the bicycle. Whereas bicycles have historically been a first-order means of transport in Europe and Asia, they are well-regarded in the Americas only among the most urbane, progressive cities and citizens. Whether bicycle-disdain is classist or stems from a contempt for physical activity is not altogether clear. What is clear is that bicycles are real equalizers: no matter how fancy your bicycle, it is physical condition and skill that dictate your biking prowess, not horsepower and handling.

This video, sent to me by my brother, is an extreme example of bicycle-disdain. Warning: these are disturbing images of a driver who knowingly and wantonly ran down dozens of bicyclists during a peaceful community evening-ride held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, during the summer of 2011. The driver was later charged with attempted murder.


The inspiration for this blog post was a late-morning Saturday stroll through Savassi, a sort of upscale downtown in Belo Horizonte. Every medium to large street I came to was packed with cars, even though it was a beautiful sunny day, dry and 25C. As I observed couples and families sitting in their cars, surrounded by noxious exhaust fumes, waiting to inch forward a few more meters on their Saturday outings, I could not choke back my own disdain for our backwards mentalities: “okay honey, it’s Saturday morning. Let’s jump in the car so we can log jam in downtown with everyone else.” Isn’t a rat-race work-week enough?

Smog Rise in São Paulo

Cars have long been considered a symbol of ‘quality of life.’ Ironically, however, they’ve become a quality-of-life problem in many cities. According to recent studies, 2010 was the year that the number of cars around the world surpassed one billion, and cars now account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. I plainly refuse to live in São Paulo because of thick pollution, poor public transport, and gridlocked streets. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced that tolerance for São Paulo-type traffic is a collective pathology. But Belo Horizonte is also getting bad.

Next stop in my dreams: a small quiet town where many streets are off-bounds to cars, and I can enjoy the best that Brazil and Minas Gerais has to offer: clear, tropical-scented air, a good cafezinho, pão de queijo, a little cachazinha, and a lot of joyful conversation with family and friends.


Threats to Broad Consultation and Participation in Brazil, Co-chair of Open Government Partnership

14 Feb

As co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, in a very few months Brazil will play host to a meeting among more than 50 countries participating in an unprecedented global initiative: a ‘multinational and multi-stakeholder’ effort to improve accountability, transparency, access to information, and greater participation in the affairs of government. A sort of club for countries committed to openness, the OGP was announced at the United Nations in September 2011 and will take on a more concrete character after the April 2012 meeting in Brasilia.

 Perplexing Participation

Ironically, the most difficult of the initiative’s goals is perhaps the least abstract – securing broad citizen participation. As the lead non-governmental coordinator for the OGP, U.S.-based Global Integrity developed a ‘Networking Mechanism’ to try to spur collaboration between governments, citizens, and organizations. But creating collaborative synergies from the outside-in is not easy. I signed up early for the Mechanism, as have colleagues of mine, but none of us has been approached by government or other NGOs here in Brazil. Indeed, not unlike other countries involved in the OGP, Brazil appears to be having a tough time fulfilling one of the 7 basic tenets of the initiative:

STEP 3: Undertake the broad public consultation to inform the government’s OGP commitments, and identify a multi-stakeholder forum for regular public consultation on OGP implementation.

Three threats may be preventing participation from being ‘broad’ and ‘consultative.’ First, some governments tend to act as the ‘command-central’ of participative initiatives, leading participation in a corporatist fashion. Second, participation in some countries exhibits elements of a clubiness that  goes against the plural and transparent principles upon which the OGP was established. Third, many governments are just plain behind, and as a result have not encouraged or facilitated meaningful participation. On February 13th 2012 reported that 21 governments are “tardy” on updating their commitments. For its own part, Brazil has not reported any developments on the OGP website since September of 2011 – notwithstanding its example-setting position as co-chair. What’s more, no ‘broad consultation’ or ‘multi-stakeholder forum’ has taken place on the web — the best medium for a forum in a country as big as Brazil.

What I was Told by the Brazilian Government

Brazil's Comptroller General is Leading the OGP

I spoke with a senior representative of Brazil’s Comptroller General (CGU) in October of this year, just after the announcement of the Open Government Partnership in September. This official communicated the government’s clear commitment to the initiative, but was short on plans for concrete participatory mechanisms. Afterwards, I thanked my interlocutor by sending an email and recommending a few specialists on various facets of open government within Latin America. I never received a response, which is perhaps to be expected when interacting with a busy senior official. I sent a second mail in mid January, inquiring about public consultations on the OGP, and I waited five days before sending a follow-up inquiry.

This second mail was calculated to elicit a response, and it hit a bit of a nerve. I received an email telling me that the Comptroller General has been having “frank and open” dialogue with civil society. The CGU has been in close consultation with three NGOs: IBASE (Rio de Janeiro), INESC (Brasilia), and Transparência Hacker (more a ‘collective’ than an NGO proper). The official also pointed out that government had set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Open Government (Comitê Interministerial Governo Aberto).

Yet thus far, the facts suggest a rather disappointing “broad public consultation” by the Brazilian government. A three-NGO consultation is, by any measure, inadequate for a country of 190 million people. And the last news on the internet about the “Inter-Ministerial Committee on Open Government” was from December 21st, around the time when this coordinating body was first established; the Committee also lacks any sort of official web presence.

Threats to a “Broad Public Consultation”

Anyone would plainly agree that these efforts fall considerably short of a “broad public consultation.” Yet while government efforts at interacting with the wider public still have much to be desired, it is ultimately civil society leaders who should be taking the initiative to urge government to move forward, and to undertake consultation on their own. The government-society consultation should be the last step in a broad public deliberation orchestrated by civic representatives in what is ultimately an initiative to benefit citizens.

Both government and the NGO community should be providing open forums for input, announcements, and updates on meetings with whoever is having ‘frank and open’ discussions. ‘Frank and open’ does not mean transparent unless the content of those discussions is visible and readily inferable to the public i.e. at a minimum, online.

The danger of government-led policy initiatives becoming a ‘club’ affair among a few civil society representatives is ever-present, especially within the Latin American political context. Much like other regions, Latin America has a history of civic-initiated movements that are summarily incorporated within an ‘official’ or ‘party-based’ framework. The result is often neutralization or co-optation.

But the other threat, the threat of exclusivity as opposed to inclusivity, is universal. One leading Canadian NGO, the Canadian Council on Social Development recently wrote:

To date, open government discussions have not included perspectives from grassroots and thematic public data and information users, producers, and those actively involved with deliberating with government. The discussion to date has primarily been within CIO and IT sectors.

To its credit, the Canadian government has at least provided a venue for public input, including a Twitter forum on December 19th, 2011. It also recently posted an update on its OGP commitments, dated January 31st 2012.

Three-level Dialogue

It is clear that dialogue should first start with “broad consultations” within society. Government might help by urging organizations to set up a broad steering committee that can reach out to various parts and sectors of the country. But ultimately, organizations should take it upon themselves to coordinate and reach out, avoiding an exclusive dialogue with government and a handful of other ‘elite’ organizations – as attractive as that might be. Second, government must set up a broad forum – on and offline – to entertain suggestions and concerns from all sectors and geographic regions.

Finally, it is worthwhile thinking about how civic leaders and governmental officials in one country might help those in another. This third level of dialogue is essential, and in this respect Global Integrity’s Networking Mechanism has been disappointingly under-utilized. Countries like Brazil – fledgling and uneven democracies with traditions of centralized control and a young third sector – might do well to reach outside of their borders and seek-out examples, direction and dialogue.

Police Strikes in Rio and Salvador — You Get What You Pay For

12 Feb

Carnaval on Salvador's streets

The strike is putting into jeopardy Brazil's signature event, Carnaval, in its two most representative cities, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador

“You get what you pay,” is a saying that doesn’t have an exact translation in Portuguese, much like other words, such as ‘enforcement[1],’ ‘check’ (as in a ‘check on authority), and ‘accountability’[2]. If language fashions our world view, as linguists suggest, it may help us understand why most Brazilians react limply to gross inequities, malfeasance, and impunity, as exemplified by the police and fire brigade strikes crippling Salvador and Rio de Janeiro just one week before Carnaval.

The Unacceptable Behavior of Brazil’s Police

Striking police and firemen have burned buses, occupied the state assembly, and are accused of inciting and participating in violence and looting. Homicide rates have nearly doubled from their already towering tallies, and now the military have been called in.

President Dilma Rousseff does not deny the right to strike – an activity in line with her political party’s first-order principles – but she does decry (Globo article) the way in which the strike is being undertaken:

I don’t consider an increase of homicides on city streets, burning buses, or entering buses in hooded masks the right way of conducting the movement.

But who can expect better behavior from front-line public servants receiving the equivalent of Rio and Salvador’s police officers, approximately R$1500 (about US$1000 a month)? A paltry R$1500 – adjusted for 5 to 6.5 percent annual inflation every couple of years –  doesn’t buy much dignity or discipline; which is probably why most citizens of Rio and Salvador view the Military Police (no association to MPs in other countries—they are regular police) with about the same temerity as common criminals.

I have personally observed petty protection rackets at work in Rio de Janeiro – just the start of police criminal activity. Earlier this year, masked gunmen in Rio de Janeiro rained bullets on the car of Patrícia Acioli, a federal judge prosecuting police paramilitary groups and militias. Her killing warned others off of similar police purges. There are a lot of good men and women in the police forces, but the monetary incentives do not favor the assurance of decent behavior.

Unacceptable Pay for Brazil’s Front-Line Public Servants

Much like firemen and teachers, the police are society’s front-line civil servants, determining our civic quality of life to a greater extent than public employees who earn salaries several multiples higher. Brazil’s 513 Lower House Deputies earn $26,700 a month (about US$190K a year), even more than the U.S.’ 435 Congressional Representatives. Yet Brazil’s National Congress is only responsible for approximately 15 percent of all approved legislation – the remaining 85 percent comes from the president. Just last week, a newly elected Brazilian deputy and former soccer star, Romário, tweeted his frustration over the Brazilian Congress’ inactivity:

It’s been 3 weeks since I came to Brasilia to work, and nothing is going on. And look, we’re in an election year… I hope that on my next arrival to Brasilia we have something to f____g do.

Something is very wrong with public priorities when congressmen are collecting huge salaries for relative redundancy, while society’s front-line public workers earn twenty times less. Heck, even secretaries and administrative assistants in the state bureaucracy receive higher wages than teachers, police, and firemen. State governors complain that increasing pay will bankrupt their states. Clearly, budgeting is a matter of priority, and the answer is to tradeoff and adjust. Federal transfers to the states might help. Certainly, the federal government should be making productive use of this year’s surplus and Brazil’s huge tax-take — the largest tax burden in the Americas as a percentage of GDP.

Recent ‘Occupy’ movements around the world have questioned the way capitalism and public policy works. We should also be questioning how we pay the front-line public servants who shape our society – we get what we pay for.


[1] ‘Cumprimento’ and ‘constrangimento’ are close equivalents, but still don’t communicate the idea of enforcement without further qualification.

[2] ‘Prestação de contas’ is the closest equivalent, but most academics and policy specialists (both in Spanish and Portuguese) view the word as inadequate to the concept, and instead use the English ‘accountability’.