From the October 2001 issue of World Press Review

Brazil on the Road to Change

Luís Henrique Amaral, Veja (centrist newsmagazine), São Paulo, Brazil, July 31, 2001

Political scientist Marcos Coimbra, director of [the polling firm] Vox Populi, observes that public opinion tends to draw hasty conclusions from a few striking facts. This behavior can be observed in most countries, including Brazil. When it was discovered that PC [Paulo César] Farias [treasurer of the 1989 election campaign of Brazil’s former President Fernando Collor de Mello] ran his corruption scheme from within Collor’s government, public opinion pronounced that Brazil was rotten to the core.

After the president’s impeachment, talk ran to a large-scale clean-up operation. But soon after that, we had the federal budget scandal, which showed that a group of congressmen were getting rich at taxpayers’ expense. The country was rotting once again—and would be submitted to yet another cleansing once the culprits were sacked or had resigned. It is no different in the case of Jader Barbalho [accused of theft of public funds while he was governor of Para state]. We feel rotten when a man accused of all sorts of irregularities becomes Senate president. Now, with his resignation, we are back to the cleansing talk. But, Coimbra alerts us, “Brazil has neither become rotten, nor is it being cleansed,” he states. “It is merely evolving.”

Brazil continues to be a place where there is a large amount of high-level thievery. But several measures have been taken to raise the risk factors for would-be delinquents. The public, even if it is not fully aware of these control mechanisms, knows they are in place. Political scientists, philosophers, and jurists identify several advances that have contributed to an increased general “moralization.” Many point to the progress made in the institutional arena—strengthening the Public Ministry, the Federal Taxation Authority, and the principle of a free press.

Congress has approved various anti-corruption laws. The Fiscal Responsibility Law, for instance, provides jail sentences for any civil servant who siphons public funds. There have also been technological advances. Bank and telephone accounts are now easily traceable. These days, when a suspect appears who merits investigation, it is not difficult, technically speaking, to uncover what he has been up to.

In the case of Brazil, an additional pressure is coming from outside the country. Its name: globalization. Reducing corruption is not just a moral necessity. It is also a practical concern. Brazil understands that it cannot compete in the global economy if it does not first confront corruption in all sectors of public life. In a corrupt nation, productivity is lower and thus prices are comparatively high. Thanks to globalization, Brazil was forced to make fiscal adjustments and, as a consequence, has privatized state-owned corporations. This has resulted in an immediate gain in the area of morality. Because it reduced the amount of state interference in the nation’s economic life, Brazil has already improved its position on Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt nations. And to improve matters further, the state has created regulatory agencies.

Another even more subtle development has strengthened Brazilians’ notion that, as citizens, they deserve respect. Twenty years ago, industry put in the marketplace whatever products it saw fit—and if people were unhappy, they could look elsewhere. These days corporations don’t have much choice. Either they guarantee client satisfaction, or they can go out of business. There is no other reason for companies’ investment of billions to create customer-service centers. When clients get angry, they make noise and go after those responsible for their disappointment.

“This is also what happened in the case of corruption. Society’s patience has reached its limit and things are starting to change,” says political scientist Sergio Abranches. There is still a great deal to be done. It is not enough to identify and jail corrupt people. We must put them on trial and sentence them. This is the only way to fight against the feeling of impunity. For this to happen, a profound modification of the judicial system is necessary. Its current mode of functioning is too slow and very inefficient. Perhaps that is one reason why, despite all the advances, public opinion continues to be skeptical.

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