Drawing Back the Curtain on Brazil’s Rotten Political System

Brasília’s corrupt power brokers have finally been exposed. Will that be enough to set the government straight?

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - MARCH 13: Protestors demonstrate demanding the removal of President Dilma Rousseff on March 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Demonstrations across the country today called for President Rousseff's exit amidst a massive corruption scandal and a deep economic recession. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - MARCH 13: Protestors demonstrate demanding the removal of President Dilma Rousseff on March 13, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Demonstrations across the country today called for President Rousseff's exit amidst a massive corruption scandal and a deep economic recession. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

Few would dispute the claim that Eduardo Cunha embodies the worst of Brazilian politics. The longtime congressman from Rio de Janeiro stands accused of taking tens of millions in bribes, including an alleged $12 million from an investment bank, and laundering the ill-gotten gains through an evangelical megachurch. He is also accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes to secure contracts with the state oil company, Petrobras, in a corruption scandal that has penetrated to the very highest levels of the country’s government: The Petrobras scandal was one of the main rallying cries of those demanding President Dilma Rousseff’s ouster.

On July 7, Cunha stepped down from his role as speaker of the lower house of Congress, just two months after he and then-Vice President Michel Temer joined forces to orchestrate the impeachment of Rousseff, making Temer acting president. With Cunha’s resignation, the depths of hypocrisy and scandal that engulfed Brazil’s government have finally come full circle.

But even in the face of a mountain of evidence that he took bribes, Cunha has his seat in Congress and remains one of the most powerful people in Brasília. In South America’s largest country, that’s politics as usual. His continuing influence is derived in part from the prospect that he could enter into a plea bargain, implicating the dozens of politicians whose campaigns he allegedly financed. This entrenched, high-level code of mutually assured silence, enforced by a network of threats that keeps all parties in line, is known locally as rabo preso, literally “tied tail,” which conjures an image of entangled rats.

Cunha is merely the latest Petrobras casualty. There are so many tails in Brazil’s rabo preso that few major political figures remain untainted by charges of wrongdoing. Among those suspected to have taken kickbacks from the scheme known as the petrolão, or “big oil,” are two former presidents and the head of the Senate, among many others. In a plea bargain revealed on June 15, a former oil official testified that Temer had asked him to funnel money from public coffers into an ally’s mayoral campaign in 2012. Rousseff, who is suspended from office while she awaits her impeachment trial in the Senate, has always clung to an image of personal upstandingness. But now, two former allies are saying that in 2014 she requested an off-the-books campaign donation. (Temer and Rousseff both deny the allegations against them.)

These scandals have revealed the underside of Brazil’s political system, long hidden by a weak judiciary and a docile press. Brazilians never had many illusions about the ethics of their leaders, but thanks to the crusading task force leading the investigation known as Lava-Jato, or Carwash, they are finally seeing just how the gears are greased. The probe started with Rousseff’s left-leaning Workers’ Party, in power since 2003, and soon ensnared much of the old establishment, including Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.

With top politicians and executives facing real penalties on a scale never before seen in this country, Carwash represents a major institutional advance. The problem is that the legislative branch hasn’t proceeded at the same pace — a disconnect at the heart of Brazil’s unending political chaos.

“Brazil has a political system that has been cartelized,” says Greg Michener, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. “There’s a huge recruitment dilemma. The sense here is that the political elite is corrupt, so only the corrupt go into politics.” Even if they wanted to, it’s hard for potential reformers to break in. The biggest obstacle is that elections are expensive. In 2014, campaigns for president and Congress cost more than $2 billion, and that’s only what candidates declared officially. The cost owes partly to Brazil’s vast size and partly to a system in which candidates must compete state-by-state with other members of their own party — plus candidates from more than three dozen other parties. The most recent addition is the Corinthians Party, established in May by a São Paulo businessman and named after a popular soccer team.

Once politicians make it through this electoral gantlet, those who hope to change the system face isolation from their fellows in Congress. After 43-year-old Senator José Reguffe decided to forgo privileges such as free plane tickets and two extra months’ salary in an attempt to tone down congressional extravagance, his colleagues reportedly called him a “demagogue” and “Don Quixote.”

The high cost of elections is also an incentive for corruption. With so many parties lacking a semblance of coherent ideology, presidents form coalitions largely through patronage, by delivering ministries or state companies to lawmakers who milk the budgets for kickbacks. In recent plea-bargain testimony, a former congressman named Pedro Corrêa described a life in politics, stretching back to 1978, that more closely resembled a career in for-profit enterprise than one in public service. The petrolão, which siphoned off money from Petrobras, was just the latest slush fund to benefit Corrêa and his cohorts.

Brazil’s favor-based political system helps to explain why Temer, having once signaled he would appoint a cabinet of meritorious technocrats, brought on the sons of old oligarchies and congressmen implicated in corruption and continues to make deals with Cunha. Hoping to stanch a crippling recession, he appointed qualified officials only for economic posts. But he may have overestimated the willingness of the press, which had broadly supported Rousseff’s impeachment, to look the other way for governability’s sake. Thanks to fresh Lava-Jato revelations, three of Temer’s ministers were forced to step down during his first five weeks as acting president.

These revelations indicate that Temer and his allies had no intention of reforming the system that produced them. On the contrary, in a secretly recorded conversation leaked to the press, one of the ministers who stepped down, Romero Jucá, suggested that removing Rousseff was the first step toward a grand bargain that would allow them to put a halt to Carwash and maintain the status quo. Speaking privately with the same oil official who would implicate Temer in soliciting illicit campaign funds, Jucá expressed horror at the prosecutors who want to “put an end to the political class … to construct a new caste, one that’s pure.”

For many on the left, this secret scheming proves that Rousseff’s removal is a literal coup — like the one carried out by the military in 1964, only dressed up in legalistic cloth. At the very least, it does seem clear that many who voted for impeachment cared less about saving Brazil from corruption or economic crisis than about saving their own skins. The deeper problem, though, is that Brazil’s political system has rarely ever hinged on democratic motives. The Workers’ Party itself, to get its projects through Congress, used the petrolão to win over many of the same lawmakers who later voted for impeachment. Further complicating the narrative of a coup, Jucá’s plan for a grand bargain hinted at protecting Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, Rousseff’s predecessor and political mentor. Politician Luciana Genro, one of the minority on the left to diverge from the Workers’ Party line, described the fight for impeachment by tweeting, “The dispute between Lula and Temer was to see who could convince politicians about which power bloc had more power to halt Lava-Jato.”

“I think purging corruption is a great thing, it’s just not a solution,” Michener says. How then will Brazil ever change? Rousseff has called for fresh elections, and given Temer’s sharp turn to the right since taking over the government, this would give Brazilians a much-needed chance to weigh in on the future of their country. But it would offer few options from outside this broken system. Among those leading polls are Lula and Rousseff’s main opponent in the 2014 election, Aécio Neves, both of whom are under investigation in Lava-Jato. Even Marina Silva, a self-branded outsider who came in third place in 2014, has recently been accused of receiving undeclared campaign donations (a charge she likewise denies). Only Jair Bolsonaro, a former soldier and congressman with a radically conservative platform, is free of corruption allegations. He does, though, face charges of inciting sexual assault after he declared that he wouldn’t rape a fellow member of Congress because she didn’t “deserve it.”

With so few appealing alternatives, it comes as no surprise that many Brazilians have given up on politicians altogether. Even those who marched against Rousseff didn’t show much love for her opposition. One survey revealed that nine out of 10 working-class Brazilians couldn’t name anyone to lead the country out of its crisis — with the few who felt able to answer most commonly naming Pope Francis. And yet, some are optimistic about Brazil’s future.

The country’s prosecutors, investigators, and judges are far from perfect, sometimes testing the bounds of due process in their zeal to incriminate their targets. But Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, calls their efforts “more important than those of the majority of lawmakers in terms of impacting the political system.” This goes beyond the purge currently under way. In the mass protests that have erupted periodically over the past few years, one message unites the disparate groups that have taken part: dissatisfaction with the establishment. While this partly reflects the popular discredit of politicians, it may also be taken as a sign of promise. Key legislation on plea bargains, which has allowed Lava-Jato to advance as it has, emerged after mass protests in June 2013. More recently, prosecutors have proposed a package of reforms known as the Ten Measures, which would speed up convictions for corrupt lawmakers. And changing the incentives for politicians could change the popular idea of what to expect from the political system, albeit gradually.

“What we’re seeing is a clash between the values and expectations of different segments of Brazilian society,” Santoro says. “Brazil is not a banana republic. At some point, these more modern and dynamic segments are going to win more representation.” It just isn’t going to happen overnight, as the transition from Rousseff to Temer makes clear. If a new political culture is to emerge, the birth pangs may just be beginning.

Photo credit: VICTOR MORIYAMA/Getty Images

Alex Cuadros is the author of "Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country." After six years in São Paulo, he's now based in New York.

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