Brazil’s top 10 worst ministers (out of impressive 39)

DISCLAIMER: Some of those that made the list are in the wrong job. Others have nothing to do with the platform on which President Dilma Rousseff was reelected. But quite a bunch are plain shocking. For many experts, they are part of the worst cabinet since the end of the dictatorship (1964-1985). That could be true. We will find out in the next few months, but those names help explain why even more Brazilians are frustrated with politics. It is too conservative, too full of very suspicious people and full of political foxes. Perhaps it is because she expects difficult times at Congress due to the multiple scandals at Petrobras. Still, this bunch is inexcusable.

10 – Joaquim Levy (Finance) – Financial markets bet against Rousseff all over 2014. And she was elected under the promise of making adjustments to the Brazilian economy without hitting jobs and income even more. That is a tough task, no doubt, and a little pain is unavoidable when balancing budgets and primary surplus are untouchable dogmas. She could have picked someone that is market friendly in her ranks. Instead, she went for Levy — a neoliberal that studied in Chicago and nicknamed Scissor-hands. His austerity package deeply contradicts the promises of no unpopular measures. Instead of making Brazil’s tax system more progressive or taxing dividends to get fiscally healthier, Rousseff and Levy went after consumers. Energy prices, banking costs, you name it. If Levy were on opposition’s Aécio Neves team there would be no surprise. It is as if Rousseff had given the economy for a rival to run.

9 – Eliseu Padilha (Aviation) - There are so many accusations against Padilha that just the fact he is in Congress is shocking enough. He was minister of Transportation under president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and was in the opposition until 2006. A big friend of Vice-President Michel Temer, he denies all the accusations that gave him the nickname Eliseu Quadrilha (literally Eliseu of the Gang, which sounds much more fun in Portuguese because this is not a nice gang we are talking about). He will now be the leader of the modernization of Brazil’s airports.

8 – Antônio Carlos Rodrigues (Transportation) - This guy is a city councilor in São Paulo and a key member of a Palmeiras ultra group called Mancha Verde. That means no political leverage at all. His party is involved in every single corruption scandal in the last decades. Transportation is one of the ministries with the biggest budgets — we will know how much he will have after Scissor-hands does his job, but it should be no lower than US$ 8 bln. He will be a target of the media for the sheer fact it is too easy.

7 – Pepe Vargas (Institutional Relations) - What do you do when you have difficulties in Congress and you need someone that can whip votes, bridge differences and reach across the aisle for some meaningful reforms? President Rousseff answered that question by bringing in as her main man for political tasks someone that was never a leader in any role and that has no influence in Congress. Vargas’ merit is to be close to the president. Not tough to predict where that will end.

6 – Helder Barbalho (Fishing) - The man himself isn’t such a great problem — yet. But the family name Barbalho rings a bell to all Brazilians. His father Jader is a synonym of corruption in the North of Brazil. It was him that appointed his son. This ministry has one of the lowest budgets in the cabinet, but it is a shock to see someone of the Barbalho family is actually being groomed by Rousseff to be the next governor of the state of Pará.

5 – Jaques Wagner (Defense) - Two-time governor of the key battleground state of Bahia, a skilled political insider in Congress and a presidential hopeful for 2018. So why is he in Defense? Probably because the president doesn’t care about the Armed Forces and can use him as an informal congressional leader in his spare time. Wagner surely isn’t there because he is a specialist — he is far from that. And he isn’t in a better position because Rousseff’s Chief-of-Staff Aloizio Mercadante is also a presidential hopeful. Wagner’s presence in Defense hints at a bigger issue: the Worker’s Party is already torn apart and that could affect governance.

4 – Aldo Rebelo (Science and Technology) - Our former minister of Sport was keen on Rio-2016. He worked well as a buffer between Rousseff and FIFA’s leaders. But now this man who doesn’t believe in global warming is taking care of Brazil’s scientists. A man that refutes English speaking as if it were selling out to foreigners. As in many other cases, Rebelo doesn’t know much about science and technology. He will have about US$ 4 billion to work. Will any of that go to the fight of greenhouse effect, Mr Rebelo? He was the only minister to have earned a profile in The New York Times.

3 – Kátia Abreu (Agriculture) - Just like Levy, she is not what Rousseff voters expected for that job — despite the fact everyone knew she would take it long before. She is the former head of Brazil’s very conservative National Confederation of Agriculture and seen as an enemy by every single movement that defended reelection for the incumbent. Abreu is also accused of having workers in slavelike situation on her farms, which she denies. The extra sauce that makers her appointment even more outrageous to many Brazilians is that the new minister and the president have become great friends. So close that former Marxist guerrilla Rousseff is going to be landowner and cattle raiser Abreu’s maid of honor in her wedding later this year.

2 – Gilberto Kassab (Cities) - This ministry, which deals one-on-one with mayors from all over Brazil, comes with a US$ 8 billion price tag. When asked about his ideological orientation, this guy actually said he is “neither in the right nor in the left.” The political party he owns since 2012 is no different. By some bizarre force of nature, he was mayor of São Paulo for six years and left with the worst job approval ever. But he is a skilled political tactician; Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva owe it to him; Kassab dehydrated the opposition since he started his non-ideological party. Now he has one of the biggest forces in Congress. Not only Kassab has leverage, but he also has plans. Will he get the worst job approval ever as São Paulo governor in a few years? Could be. President Rousseff is surely helping him to.

1 – George Hilton (Sport) - He was actually booed by the crowd in front of the presidential palace at the moment he took office — I can’t remember of that happening in any of the inaugurations I covered since 2003. He naively admitted in front of his colleagues and the press that he doesn’t understand much about the job he just took. His main gig before being elected Congressman was as pastor. He was appointed by his make-believe political party, which is actually a very suspicious evangelical church in disguise. He is the running joke even among other ministers. In every bet, journalists pick him as the favorite to be thrown away first. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if that happened, since Hilton is now the federal government’s face on Rio-2016. Before this, people had only heard of him due to his arrest alongside suitcases full of suspicious money. He denies any wrongdoing, of course. And so does the president for appointing such a Frankenstein cabinet.

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Rousseff’s inauguration shows Brazilians gave up on hope

Back in January 1st of 2003, about 100,000 Brazilians showed up to see Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva take office. It was a big party for the former metal worker whose motto was “hope will beat fear”, in a reference to critics that considered him as unfit for the job as Argentina’s troubled president Fernando de la Rúa. Twelve years later, about 6,000 came to watch Dilma Rousseff’s second inauguration. Corruption scandals, a very conservative cabinet and unpopular measures ahead left a sentiment of malaise even among her voters. Hard to say much of that will change until 2018.

I covered all inaugurations since Lula’s historic first. The difference between the expectations then and the recent reality is staggering. Now the Worker’s Party (PT) has paid activists — people that make money out of showing up in public events. The most fanatical fans of the administration are now defending Rousseff’s new ministers, even those involved in scandals. It is all because corruption investigations on Petrobras might hit her allies and will demand a strong base in Congress so she can govern. But by appointing so many conservatives, how can a leftist govern anyway?

Some activists in the Praça dos Três Poderes tried to be optimistic. But the vast majority seemed to be there just to avoid embarrassment for the reelected president. “It is not her fault, we need to be behind her so she doesn’t depend on this reactionary Congress”, a psychiatrist from Recife said. A real estate agent from Maranhão said he came to Brasilia “to halt the coup against president Rousseff, a coup plotted by the media that doesn’t recognise her efforts on tackling misdeeds.” A sociologist from Rio tried to convince two cleaning ladies that their lives were better. He failed.

Conservative religious activists weren’t afraid of showing up. A pro-life group pressured Rousseff to forget any plans on having a more lenient legislation on abortion. As far as I could hear, not even one of the present criticised the new Finance minister, austere Joaquim Levy, or golden chainsaw agribusiness leader Katia Abreu, Brazil’s new Agriculture minister. There wasn’t a single banner against homophobe evangelical bishop George Hilton, the new Sport minister who will be the federal government’s face for Rio-2016. “Only a political reform can change that cabinet,” a lawyer said.

A political reform that is unlikely to come, he means.

The only hope I could find among the president’s fans was actually plain hopeless. Some media critics (and Brazilian media do deserve loads of criticism) say that Rousseff’s new Communication minister could bring an economic reform that would impact on journalism. But Brazilian media, despite being so tiny, are sure no changes will be made. The new minister has little political leverage after an election in which the media’s open discontent with the government went beyond reporting facts: it contributed to the worsening of the political debate. The opposition didn’t offer better for the most, but the current discontent can be contagious.

Brazil 2015 is surely a better country than Brazil 2003. But the general public that were present at Rousseff’s second inauguration weren’t nearly as enthusiastic or critical as that of twelve years ago. These folks don’t expect much from the president they elected, even the hardcore fans. All they want is to stop a conservative wave that was detonated by angry oppositionists.

To please financial markets and get some stability in Congress, the president seems to have given away the rest of hope many Brazilians had in a country that has a regressive tax code, high spend on interest rates and little efficiency. If the next four years under president Rousseff are better than the four last, I will be amazed.

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