Tag Archives: Rousseff

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecft6ZdGgvE

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.

Brazil’s Unmerited Swagger

27 Sep

Mighty Brazil

A couple of weeks ago, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega puffed out his chest and idly suggested that the BRIC countries might bail out Europe. A few weeks later, Dilma Rousseff stood before the United Nations Assembly and tossed daggers at economic mismanagement in the U.S. and Europe while at once highlighting Brazil’s sure-footedness:

“Part of the world has not yet found the balance between appropriate fiscal adjustments and proper and precise fiscal stimuli to demand and growth […] It is noteworthy that it is the president of an emerging country, a country experiencing practically full employment, who speaks here today in such stark terms of this tragedy that assails the developed countries in particular.”

While the swagger of Brazil’s top policy-makers may be based on the country’s good performance and the crush of the U.S. and European debt crises, it reflects an immodesty that is simply unmerited for a country as susceptible to the winds of change and as economically and politically backwards as Brazil.

Is Brazil Really that much Better Off? Inflation and Currency Volatility

Brazil’s vitals are not even as strong as policy-makers might like outsiders to think. Inflation is on the uptick, according to the Estado de São Paulo Newspaper, heading in the direction of 7 percent and putting further pressure on the poor, whose wages are adjusted with greater infrequency than other segments of society. Higher inflation may also signal the need to again raise Brazil’s interest rates, once again putting pressure on the poor as well as inviting speculative capital.

This raises the question of the wildly vacillating Brazilian Real. According to the Valor Económico newspaper, Brazil’s currency decreased 11 percent between September 23rd and the 26th – an alarming drop when compared to the average 5 percent drop experienced by a basket of 14 other currencies during the same period. The volatility is spooking Brazil’s exporters, importers, and investors (addendum: see this NY Times article). It’s also making price-setters edgy. The hope is that an unstable currency –reflecting an economy built on the highly elastic prices of primary commodities – will not unleash the sort of expectation-driven inflationary cycles from which Brazilians suffered throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tax and Public Policy Mismanagement

While Rousseff and Mantega tout Brazil’s fiscal management, they seem to speaking solely in terms of spending control, as opposed to taxation – the other side of the ‘fiscal management’ coin. Tax burdens are getting out of control in Brazil, especially given the offensive quality of public administration that public money buys. The Globo Newspaper reports that tax collection has hit an all-time high, having increased from 33.14 percent of GDP in 2009 to 33.59% in 2010. By comparison, the overall tax burden in the U.S. is 24 percent and in Canada it is 32 percent.

Security

Homicide rates around the World (Wikipedia)

Yet public services are regionally uneven and frequently of poor quality – especially for a country doing as well as Brazil supposedly is. Take the most basic responsibility of government — security. According to a report this week in the Globo Newspaper, Brazil solves only 5-10 percent of its approximately 50,000 homicides each year, which compares abysmally to the U.K.’s 90 percent or even the 65 percent achieved by U.S. authorities. The Globo’s analysis is that Brazil’s rock-bottom performance has to do with a lack of expertise. Given that the average police officer in the State of Rio de Janeiro starts his career with a monthly salary of $R 1200 (~US $800), it’s no wonder that experts are lacking.

Health

Health policy is yet another example, and a subject of heated debate right now in the National Congress. According to what the Minister of Science, Technology and innovation, PT faithful Aloizio Mercadante, told the Globo newspaper, Brazil spends 47 percent less per capita on public health than much-poorer Argentina, and 2.5 times less than is spent by the private sector. In Rio de Janeiro, people regularly die in emergency rooms, and public health services are so bad that my wife, a construction manager here in Rio, sends her workers back to their home state of São Paulo to receive urgent medical care. Ironically, the federal government is now fighting against a constitutional amendment (29) that would set a 10 percent floor for government health expenses. The government originally suggested raising a new tax to fund greater health spending, but recanted under well-justified criticism. Now it simply says it cannot afford such a commitment.

Over-stretched?

Perhaps money earmarked for 2012 municipal pre-election spending binge is one of the reasons why officials are so tight-fisted. Perhaps it is lavish spending on the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympics that has the public purse in a bind. Or maybe it’s just poor fiscal management, the sort of mismanagement signaled by corruption scandals and the fall of four Ministers in nine months of a new presidency.  But wait, isn’t fiscal mismanagement the developed world’s problem?

Over-Taxed

Donkey (businessman) Wagon (Tax Burden), Congress in the background

Fiscal mismanagement is not only about keeping the public accounts in order, it’s also about taxation, and how taxation is levied. This government has been praised for its fiscal discipline. Yet its approach to taxation is woefully out of step with the just treatment of citizens. Taxes accost Brazilians from every angle. Less than a week and a half ago, the government sent an executive decree to Congress levying a 30 percent increase on a ‘Tax on Industrialized Goods’ for imported cars (Mercosur excepted). The new measure provides no guarantees that domestic car producers will not raise their own prices in response to the heightened prices of foreign competitors. Effectively, the tax places a burden on consumers –who will pay more for cars – and weakens the international competitiveness of Brazil’s auto industry, which the new tax effectively inoculates against real competition. The original idea behind the measure was to protect domestic auto-makers from imports, driven into Brazil by the strong Real. The newly strengthening US dollar and the fall of the Real now appears to have alleviated the original bind domestic car makers were having – but the tax remains.

Another tax that experienced an increase in 2011 is one that would cause a revolt in any other country – a 6.38 percent tax on all credit card purchases made outside the country. In order to force Brazilians to buy overtaxed goods at home, the government attempts to curb spending abroad by placing taxes on foreign credit card spending. What it may effectively achieve is capital flight: driving richer Brazilians to open up accounts in the U.S. or offshore.

Brazil’s Limited Options

Despite Brazil’s many problems, it is still thankfully in much better economic shape than the U.S. or Europe right now. But whereas the U.S. has fiscal options, in Brazil they’re relatively limited. Taxes cannot be raised much more and government cuts in spending look unlikely, what with elections on the horizon, expensive preparations for the 2014 and 2016 games, and the desperate straits of Brazil’s public services. In short, Brazil has little margin for error, which leaves it in a tight spot if the world recession should jump Brazil’s high tariff barriers or narrow the funnel that travels from Brazil’s forests, fields, and mines to China’s kitchens and workshops.

If there’s one place Brazil could be saving money, it’s on administration. By opening up government to greater transparency, citizens might be able to help government reveal inefficiencies, incompetence and corruption. Eliminating this fat would help Brazil save an inestimably large amount of public money.

Until the Brazilian government acts to clean up its own waste and mal-administration, it should keep its eulogizing about the mismanagement of other countries to itself.

 

Movements Against Corruption Afoot in Brazil

6 Sep

The performance of Brazil’s Congress, and particularly the governing coalition makes one wonder whether the nation’s deliberative process should be moved somewhere else— far away from the alleged ‘representatives of the people.’ Congress is where the government’s coalition ‘allies’ select their robber baron cabinet ministers, the same ones that have been resigning one after the next in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff’s spring cleaning. Yet despite the rash of corruption scandals over the past months, and one particularly egregious ‘secret vote’ that recently absolved a deputy of grand corruption charges, a few bright spots have begun to appear. These include a parliamentary movement against corruption and a September 7th “March Against Corruption” in support of President Rousseff’s efforts to purge Brasilia.

The Super-Party Front Against Corruption

Senator Pedro Simon

A group of parliamentarians led by Senator Pedro Simon (PMDB) have announced the creation of a “Super-Party Front Against Corruption.” The movement supports the faxina or cleaning that began shortly after President Rousseff took power.  According to the Jornal Globo, Simon asks that the President, “dialogue with us, chat, sit together to find a solution.” Simon’s plea does not sound like unconditional support for the fight against corruption, but rather a return to the amiguismo and ‘consensus impunity’ status quo. But at least the establishment of a ‘front’ against corruption is a promising sign that incentives are moving in the right direction.

Can Electoral Rewards for Ethical Behavior Change Congress?

One Deputy reinforces the idea that incentives to prioritize ethics do exist. Deputy  Jose Reguffe, a 38 year-old Deputy from Brasilia, is an ethical crusader who gave up half his staff, his complete travel allowance, and part of his ‘extra’ salary, because he’d rather save public money than receive funds he claims he doesn’t need. In proportional terms, Reguffe won more votes than any other member of Congress (266.5K), and with very little campaign money. The clear inference is that Brazilians reward honesty and ethical behavior. Although perhaps not the most novel conclusion for readers used to seeing dishonest behavior punished, it is highly significant for a country where assumed or proven dishonesty often has little bearing on election results or political support more generally.

Unchecked Impunity

Bribe-Taker, Roriz

Last week’s secret vote in the Lower House, which successfully absolved Deputy Jaqueline Roriz of corruption charges, provides a point-in-case of the sort of impunity that has long muddied the reputation of Congress. In 2006 Roriz was caught red-handed on tape accepting a bribe of R$50,000 (US$33,000) in public money. Yet deputies justified the 235-166 vote in favor of absolution by claiming that Roriz had not yet been vested as a federal deputy when the film was shot—  instead she was a state deputy at the time. The fact that a proven thief of public money continues to pose as a public servant seems to have escaped Congress’ sense of higher justice, much less its sense of irony. Irony of ironies, the ‘representatives of the people’ employed a very unrepresentative institutional mechanism –the ‘secret parliamentary vote’ – to endorse another desolating setback for parliament.

The March Against Corruption

But there is increasing movement against corruption and impunity. Tomorrow is Brazilian Independence Day, the 7th of September, and marches against corruption are set to take place across Brazil. The movement, simply called the “March Against Corruption” (marcha contra a corrupção) has been quietly accumulating supporters through social media, including Youtube (and here) and Facebook.

Organization against corruption is a positive step forward. As I wrote about a couple of posts ago, Brazilians have a reputation for passivity in the face of injustice. Yet it remains to be seen whether the March will prove little more than a fleeting protest. Discouragingly, the mainstream media has been providing very little coverage of the event.

The hands-off approach of the media makes perfect sense, however; zealous coverage of recent corruption scandals has led government to once more brandish the ‘media reform’ card. In the wake of the government’s efforts to purge corruption from federal ministries, especially those most involved in preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics,  it seems the strategy is now to use the media as a scapegoat. This is the media’s cue to play nice. Stay tuned.

Reviewing the New Brazilian President’s 1st Semester: Policy

22 Jul

Sure, federal governments run the postal service, a military that doesn’t have a lot to do, and a few social programs, but what the heck are they good for anyways, besides causing a lot of bickering in Congress?

You’re not likely to find very good answers perusing the news. Look in any newspaper and you’ll see that headlines refer to conflict—the politics of policy make the news, not policy itself. Good policy analysis is difficult to find, which makes understanding what the heck goes on at the federal level a very difficult exercise indeed. Here is a brief overview of some of the more noteworthy policy outputs of the Rousseff administration during her first semester in office:

1. Raising the minimum wage:  I wrote about the raise back in February when it was enacted. The monthly minimum wage went from $510 in 2010 to $545 in 2011 (about US$345), a 6 percent raise. The rise in inadequate, given that Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are considered among the world’s top 15 most expensive cities at the moment, and inflation is now growing at about 6.5 percent annually. On the other hand, full employment in Brazil is causing labor shortages and wage inflation, which may signal higher real wages. Most workers earn more than one minimum salary; construction workers who work as laborers, for example, earn approximately two minimum wages.

2.  Raising tax exemption rates: A correlate of adjusting the minimum wage is adjusting minimum rates for tax exemption. If you made less than R$1500 per month in Brazil, you were exempt from tax. For each year of the Rousseff government, this rate will increase by 4.5 percent, so in 2011 it is R$1556, and in 2012 it will be R$1637. The rate should theoretically keep pace with inflation, but it currently falls two points short. What this ultimately means is that if inflation continues apace, the government will be taxing more Brazilians each year if wages are adjusted for inflation. Paulo Pereira da Silva (PDT-SP) and the unions proposed an annual hike of 6.47 percent, but the government refused.

3. “Brazil Without Misery” or Brasil sem Miséria: A social program that involves expanding basic services, such as electricity, sanitation, literacy, and other basic public services. The program follows in the tradition of the famous Bolsa Familia championed by Lula (although originated by Fernando Henrique Cardoso), which provides cash transfers to families conditional on their children attending school. The scale of Bolsa Familia and its popularity in the poor northeast are widely viewed to have handed Lula his second presidential election victory. Brazil Without Misery may do the same for Dilma.

4. Creation of Limited Liability Employment: Previously, opening a company required having a partner, to create broader liability and accountability. Now, a single person can open a limited business. The only requirement is that the total capital outlays must equal or exceed 100 minimum salaries, in other words, R$54,500, or about US$35,000. Good for entrepreneurship and the formalization of the informal sector, but still a high capital requirement for most Brazilians.

5. The National Strategic Border Plan, or Plano Estratégico de Fronteiras: The plan is to fight cross-border crime, including arms, animal, and human trafficking, drug-smuggling, and environmental destruction. Announced in June and coordinated by various police forces, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Justice, the plan has generated little if any reporting.

A few Additional Good Policy Calls:

Putting an End to the Pão de Açucar-Carrefour Merger Fiasco:

The President effectively vetoed an embryonic plan hatched by the Grupo Pão de Açucar, one of Brazil’s largest grocers, and tentatively approved by the National Development Bank of Brazil (BNDES): to take over another of Brazil’s largest grocers, the French group, Carrefour. The resulting gorgon would have controlled about a quarter of the national supermarket industry, much to the detriment of other chains and consumers. BNDES has earned a reputation for fostering oligopolies; it funds a small group of privileged Brazilian firms—with taxpayer money at privileged rates—that then proceed to gouge Brazilian consumers. Until 2009 there was absolutely no transparency in the BNDES. The rationale behind the BNDES, apparently, is to fund Brazilian companies to be so large that they can compete on an international scale, notwithstanding their homegrown inefficiencies. According to various news sources, the BNDES President Luciano Coutinho fell out of Rousseff’s good graces after the Pão de Açucar-Carrefour episode.

Mass-Dismissals in the Department of Transport and Infrastructure (DNIT):

The carnage continues until today—more than 15 top officials of the DNIT have been pressured out of a job by the President’s Office, according to today’s Folha de São Paulo. As my last blog post conveys, Rousseff appears to be keen on sending a message to other allied-controlled Ministries: corruption will not be tolerated. Seven cases against DNIT officials have been opened by the Comptroller General. The Ministry of Tourism was the latest government agency to come under scrutiny. According to today’s Jornal Globo, the Ministry paid more than R$52 million for online courses provided by an NGO run by an ex-politico with several corruption cases on his record.

Joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as Co-Chair

Although it is questionable whether Brazil should qualify for the OGP, let alone serve as Co-Chair alongside the U.S. , this surprising commitment to open government at least sets up positive expectations. The most important pending issue is to approve the country’s long-awaited freedom of information law. Then active transparency has to be a focus, from tax transparency, transparency on environmental policy questions, to transparency on how public money is being spent. Open government also sets up the expectation for greater governmental open-data initiatives that may be leveraged by Brazil’s advocates, hackers and technologists.

Brazil’s willingness to join the Open Government Partnership is a decisive demonstration that Brazil is not “turning to the left” à la Hugo Chavez, but rather charting out its own pragmatic course. This route is unquestionably closer to the U.S. Not only is Brazil co-chairing the OGP alongside its Anglo-American neighbor, but the U.S. recently promised to lend its “full support” to Brazil in its quest to claim a seat on a reformed U.N. Security Council. The two American Goliaths are undeniable getting cozy with each other.

Reviewing the New Brazilian President’s 1st Semester: Politics

15 Jul

This past Wednesday night Dilma Rousseff threw a cocktail party to celebrate the end of her government’s first semester and the beggining of the National Legislature’s mid July break. According to LatinNews.com, 17 of 38 ministers made an appearance, as did the Presidents of both Chambers of Congress and the Vice President. The event began at 7:30, but by 9pm most invitees had already left. The lukewarm turnout and hasty departures reflect a palpable lack of enthusiasm for Rousseff’s performance after six months in power.

To her credit, the President has kept the economy buoyant while Europe and the U.S. tank, and she has added continuity to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s achievements by expanding and inventing new social programs, such as the new Program to Fight Extreme Misery (Programa de Combate à Miseria Extrema). But apart from these significant bright spots, the President’s policy performance has been halting at best and weak at worst. Overall, the clearest trend has been to privilege the unity of her legislative coalition at the cost of policy priorities, ultimately making a success of neither.

The Coalitional Problem

Notwithstanding the largest majority coalition in Brazil’s democratic history, the president has had extreme difficulty ensuring congress’ support. Supposed allies have disobeyed and blackmailed Rousseff, weakening or delaying governmental policy priorities, particularly those critical to Brazil’s future sustainability and stability— Forestry Legislation (Código Forestal), the establishment of a Truth Commission, and the passage of a Freedom of Information Law, among others.

On the other hand, Congress has merrily passed measures to increase opacity in budgetary accounting, as was the case with decree 527/11, ostensibly designed to expedite contracting for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. One of the few members of the congressional opposition, PSDB party leader, Aecio Neves, commented:

In all, absolutely all modern societies, transparency or the advance of transparency is seen as an instrument to defend [the rights of] society. Here we are taking a contrary path, employing the argument that we’re in a hurry, as if we had just now discovered, over the last couple of months, that we would host the World Cup and the Olympics.

The Corruption Problem

Despite Congress’ role in obstructing the President, resisting transparency, and supporting opacity, it has predictably blamed the President for a lackluster first semester. “In this first semester,” according to the President of the Senate, José Sarney, “the crises that emerged were all within the Executive.”

It is true that Rousseff has had to replace no less than four ministers in her first six months in office, including two as a result of major corruption scandals. First to go was Antonio Palocci, the President’s Chief of State and congressional fixer. It was the Folha de São Paulo that discovered a multiplication of 20 in the político’s net worth over four years. Apartments and other assets had been registered under false names.

Second was Rousseff’s Transport Minister, Alfredo Nascimento, a coalitional cabinet posting for the PR, an important ally. Nascimento’s ministry and PR congressional leaders had skimmed untold amounts from the massive public transport projects in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Nascimento then had the gall to ask Rousseff for an additional $6.5 billion because of budget shortfalls.

While the Transport Minister’s entourage was forced to resign, it appeared that Nascimento himself had escaped the axe. Then it was discovered that the net worth of the Minister’s son had increased from somewhere under US$130,000 to around US$20 million in a matter of a few short years. The Minister’s resignation—which Rousseff should have ordered from the very beginning—soon followed suit.

It is widely suspected that the leak responsible for this scandal originated within the President’s sphere of influence. Rousseff is viewed to support a housekeeping of corrupt rent-seekers, many of whom, like Nascimento, are hangovers from President Lula’s two administrations. When Rousseff finally did choose a replacement minister for Nascimento, the PR appeared to be unhappy with choices made; this past Wednesday it boycotted a lunch for PT allies in the Lower House.

The need to pander to congressional allies is the critical reason Rousseff has not acted with greater decisiveness. Some, including the author, originally thought that what Rousseff lacked in negotiating ability, she would make up for in fearsome authority. Yet with congressional legislators disloyal to ideology and local constituencies, negotiation through pork and positions seems to be one of few alternatives.

Rousseff’s decision not to spend last year’s residual budget funds is illustrative of what can happen when legislators are denied resources. When Rousseff refused to release funds for pork barrel spending, the Lower House conducted a boycott; not even her own party would vote for critical health legislation until Rousseff caved-in, disbursing the US$3 billion she had sought to save taxpayers. Such defeats illustrate that Rousseff still has much to learn about legislative hardball.

Next post will review Rousseff’s performance on policy.

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 http://www.freedominfo.org/news/ 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 http://gregmichener.com/Dissertation.html

[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: http://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2011/06/nao-podemos-fazer-o-wikileaks-da-historia-do-brasil-diz-sarney.html

Access to Technology versus Manaus: Brazil’s Conflicting Goals

28 Apr

Among the thirteen pillars of President Dilma Rousseff’s mandate,  number 7 and 8 are about education and technology:

7. To guarantee education for social equality, citizenship, and development.

8. Transform Brazil into a scientific and technological power.

A goal that falls in line with both of these pillars is to make computers more accessible to kids. Brazil would be smart to follow the lead of the one laptop per child concept. Undoubtedly the most important learning tool available, a computer is a window into the  universe and a means to engage in self-learning. Self-learning is especially critical given the quality of schooling in Brazil.

With the average teacher’s salary at around US$650 dollars a month–a third less than what my wife’s secretary makes working at a construction site–teachers often lack the training or enthusiasm that fosters curiosity and a desire to learn. Computers provide an important resource for stimulating kids’ curiosity. Finally, greater access to computers may ultimately make technologists out of kids, helping government fulfill goal #8. This goal is certainly not being achieved through Brazil’s computer industry.

One laptop per child program in Paraguay

An article by The Economist in 2000, “Bungle in the Jungle,” describes Brazil’s ill-advised electronics industry. The military government established an industrial park and duty-free zone in 1967 located in Manaus, 1000 kilometers up the Amazon. The project’s motivations were all backwards; rather than technological advancement, the project was predicated on local employment, colonization of the Amazon, and securing Brazil’s borders. As a result, Brazil has what The Economist describes as a “screwdriver” industry: for the most part an assembly site for imported foreign parts. While more successful than Henry Ford’s disastrous attempt at setting up assembly-line-Utopia in the Amazon, Manaus’ industry is subsidized by government and consumers who pay higher prices for all technology.

The cheapest laptop you might find at Casas Bahia, one of Brazil’s leading retailers, is in the vicinity of R$1000 (US$635). The same computer in Canada or the US is almost half the price. What this means in practice is that the middle classes on up go abroad to buy their computers cheap, and the people who can’t afford to travel abroad– 70 percent of Brazilians–pay close to double. They could go to Manaus’ duty-free zone, but the ticket to Manaus is about as expensive as one to Miami.

Massive tariffs on technology have achieved three principal results. First, they have allowed Brazil’s uncompetitive computer industry to stay afloat, and its directors to make millions– directly and indirectly subsidized by government. Tariffs also mean that Brazilian ‘computer companies’ can afford to be uncompetitive, keeping their costs high, just as long as they are able to undercut their taxed competitors. Second, tariffs provide the government with a  tax grab. And third, in addition to costing taxpayers a pretty penny, artificially high computer prices deny millions of Brazilians access to technology and tools for learning.

One of Brazil’s electronic brands, Gradiente, had apparently not made an operational profit in 10 years as of 2007. That same year it was forced to shut its doors under half a billion reais of debt (about US$350  million), much of it owed to Brazil’s taxpayer-funded development bank, BNDES.You can bet that the directors made off like bandits at the taxpayers expense. Now they’re back. One of the original founders of Gradiente, Eugênio Staub, has put together a consortium of investors and raised $68 million reais to get gradiente back up. You would think that US$40 million wouldn’t be enough to jump-start a company that closed under mountains of debt, but magic sometimes happens in Brazil, and often on the backs of taxpayers and the poor. Point-in-case, the investors in this specious project include the pension systems of Petros (Petrobras, which is majority-owned by government), the government of the state of Amazonas, and the pension system for Caixa (FUNCEF, a federally owned bank ).

Brazil’s electronics market contradicts the Rousseff government’s current goals. If Brazil is serious about moving education and technology forward, it should open up its markets and allow everyone access to affordable technology. The other alternative is to make subsidization of the domestic computer industry transparent– a social policy, so to speak– and ensure industrial efficiency and accessible prices for the poor. Having access to technology is the first step towards fostering technological expertise and leadership.

A Freedom of Information Law in Brazil: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

18 Apr

Article written for freedominfo.org, a site curated by the D.C. based National Security Archive,  18 April, 2011: http://www.freedominfo.org/2011/04/rousseff-praise-brightens-outlook-for-brazilian-foi-bill/

Heartening events and significant setbacks added more drama to Brazil’s bid for a freedom of information (FOI) law this past week, but the overall outlook is considerably more promising now than before.

Heartening Events: President Rousseff Declares Support for FOI bill

President Dilma Rousseff confirmed her support for the FOI bill, (41/2010), which was approved by the Chamber of Deputies in April 2010 and has since been awaiting passage in the Senate. This is the first time that President Rousseff has publicly expressed support for the law since taking over from President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva in January, 2011. Bandwagoning on the President’s commitment, the media has begun to cover the issue with greater enthusiasm— a positive development for fostering much needed public awareness.

Brazil and the Open Government Partnership

The timing of the announcement coincides with U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit and an invitation to join an ‘Open Government Partnership,’ an effort that will include more than 70 countries. The Open Government Partnership was established last year with India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and is expected to be announced at the opening of the United Nations in September of this year.

President Rousseff has set May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, as the target date for enactment. At just over two weeks from now, this appears to be an excessively ambitious time horizon—barring some creative legislative maneuvering.

Significant Setback: the Unconstitutionality of Brazil’s FOI Bill

A second event of interest was the recognition of the FOI bill’s unconstitutionality last week in the Senate. Article 35 of the bill mandates the establishment of a ‘Mixed Evaluative Commission,’ to be composed of representatives of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government, to be responsible for deliberating on issues of classification. The problem is the Commission’s multi-branch composition, which apparently contradicts Article 2 of the 1988 Constitution: the three branches of government must be ‘independent’ of each other.

Why this issue was not discovered earlier, and debates of constitutional interpretation aside, nothing short of legislative wizardry will be required to pass the bill within the next two weeks let alone the next two months. The crux of the issue is that the lawmakers may have to amend the bill, sending it back to the Chamber of Deputies for re-approval and then once again to the Senate.

What makes things even more complicated is the feasibility of rushing legislation in a Congress stacked with ‘urgent’ executive orders (medidas provisorias), which have constitutional priority. Presidents tend to dominate the legislative agenda in Brazil with their urgency decrees. To place the FOI bill ahead of these urgent measures will require some adroit stage management.

Legislative Acrobatics?

Three work-arounds have been suggested. First, the Senate ‘arranges’ the text without amending it, obviating the need for re-approval in the Chamber of Deputies. The meaning of this sounds as mysterious as it seems. A second suggestion is to pass the law as is, and have President Rousseff line-item veto the unconstitutional clause, surgically removing undesirable parts. But this option again presents a constitutional dilemma: congressional passage of an unconstitutional law. The most likely scenario will see 41/2010 return to the Chamber of Deputies.

The question is whether Congress is willing to perform the legislative acrobatics needed to meet the President’s goal of a May 3rd enactment. Although the President’s PT party controls wide majorities in both Chambers, its coalition is not one hundred percent reliable. What’s more, the leader of the Senate is former President José Sarney of the PMDB party, who is not likely to pander to Rousseff’s every whim. While the PMDB is the President’s principal ally, it is better known for its commitment to pork-barrel politics than transparency.

These, in short, are the legislative dilemmas currently facing the FOI bill that has been in Congress since May 2009. What is heartening in all of this is the President’s newly stated commitment. With strong control over both chambers, government should succeed in passing a FOI law— at some point.

Replacing a Truth Commission with a FOI Law

In 2000, Mexico’s President-elect Vicente Fox promised a Truth Commission to address human rights atrocities committed during Mexico’s Dirty War, from the 1960s to the early 1990s. But Fox cancelled the Commission because he needed support for his signature reforms in Congress and sought the legislative cooperation of the PRI, the party that had presided over previous decades of abuse.

A similar bait-and-switch may be happening in Brazil. The Brazilian military and the Department of Foreign Affairs (strongly connected to the former) have been the most salient resisters of greater transparency, let alone a Truth Commission. Yet establishing a Truth Commission to reconcile abuses committed during Brazil’s 1964-85 dictatorship was one of President Rousseff’s campaign promises, and the wheels of said Commission were set in motion soon after she took office. Over the past few weeks, however, consideration of the commission has come to a standstill in Congress.

While Rousseff may just be putting the Commission on the backburner for the moment—it boasts a rather narrow constituency of supporters—it could also be possible that Dilma Rousseff will accept a dead-letter Truth Commission if military resisters yield to a FOI bill. On April 4th 2011 Foreign Affairs stated its preference for the FOI bill originally introduced into Congress in May 2009, which has since undergone considerable strengthening improvements. This was grim news, because the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee has yet to approve the FOI bill, and any change or rejection would send the bill back to the Chamber of Deputies. President Rousseff’s public commitment to a FOI bill and the quiet withdrawal of her pressure for a Truth Commission may be one of the FOI bill’s saving graces.

An Example of Brazil’s Need for Greater Transparency

The FOI bill in Congress is the first step to a fiscally stronger Brazil. On March 30th 2011, the lead opinion piece of O Globo newspaper reviewed a 2003 report by the Comptroller General on federal funds misappropriated by municipal government officials – approximately $60 billion reais annually, about the size of Uruguay’s GDP. It is of little surprise that Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the western hemisphere, over 35 percent.

Legislative reforms such as the FOI bill currently stalled in Congress are the first step towards the type of monitoring that can help reduce corruption, put the country’s tax dollars to better use, and ultimately lead to a more reasonable tax burden. Government auditors are insufficient for the monitoring task at hand; the scope of the problem is too large and using auditors for enforcement is expensive. The media and citizens need to lead, and greater public sector transparency is a key precondition for effective oversight. The prospective passage of a freedom of information law will finally give Brazilians one of the tools they need.

“Number of people using internet more than doubles in last four years (118%)” “Income goes up by 20% over the last five years” “The country now has more houses with washing machines”

8 Sep

These were a few of today’s not-to-be-missed headlines in Brazil’s most respected newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. With the presidential election less than one month away, this news would appear to be a thinly veiled attempt to laud Lula’s time in office and, by association, his chosen candidate, Dilma Rousseff. Yet no… and yes… it so happens that the government-run Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics has just released its 2009 household survey, nicely timed to coincide with the pre-election race.

Well, it’s not looking good for Rousseff’s opposition, and with little wonder. It seems that the media just can’t find ways to be critical of Rousseff or Lula these days beyond airing PSDB accusations. It also appears that the Rouseff and the PT-PMDB electoral coalition have the clear money advantage. Folha reports today that PT candidates for legislative deputy have raised more than 80 percent what they did in 2006. By comparison, Jose Serra’s PSDB candidates have raised only 20 percent more than in 2006. This could mean of number things. First, the election is more contested than it was in 2006. Second, and somewhat contradictorily, the PT is the clear favorite and thus big financiers are putting their money on the winning horse. I don’t even want to speculate on other possibilities.

Temer- Still an Unknown Potential President

Temer- To be feared as a possible president?

Let’s just hope for a closer race and a little more balanced coverage. We haven’t heard anything about Dilma Rousseff’s health, even despite her recent bout with lukemia; and what’s even scarier is that her vice presidential running mate, Michel Temer, is receiving little if any publicity. What if Brazil ends up with Temer as a president, as it had the misfortune to do when Tancredo Neves death resulted in the pork-barrelling José Sarney as president? Do Brazilians know who Michel Temer is anyways?