Top 10 most unbelievable things Brazilian politicians do
Posted by Mauricio Savarese
Disclaimer: this is NOT a post to say Brazil is the most corrupted nation on Earth. We are not that important. If that is the reason you’ve come here you will be disappointed. Corruption is a global issue and I believe cracking down on those who pay kickbacks is just as essential. Not all of those are Brazilians, are they?
I have covered Brazilian politics for almost 10 years, which gave me the experience of watching history unravel in two presidential and two City Hall elections in a row. I thought that made me very keen on how the system works — or, in many cases, doesn’t. But only when I was sent to work in Brasilia in late 2010 that I realized how low the standards of our politicians are. Of course that doesn’t apply to every Representative, Senator and Minister. But it is a very big bunch of tactless men and women, to say the least. Just like all the 79 Senators skipping the Monday session in the picture above. Brazil has 81 senators.
The lack of interest for politics in Brazil (let’s see if the protests change anything in the long-run) gives politicians a very hysterical persona. It is very difficult to go along with that. On the one hand they do anything they want because they know people won’t care much. On the other they give themselves so much importance that they sound as if loads of people were actually behind everything they do. Neither are completely accurate. The difference between the expectations they raise and the things they actually do is also a reason for so many people to be in the recent wave of protests.
Politicians take for granted that any scandal will, as we say in Brazil, end in a pizza — that means nothing will actually happen.
Approval ratings fell sharply for the president and governors, but Congressmen probably are much worse off. Congress is where most low standard politicians go to. Some actually become ministers because their local leaders suggest so — we have a one-off system of presidential coalition, our ministers can be appointed even if they are not elected.
Still, these politicians get to stall any agenda for reforms and actual improvements in Brazil. They want the system to work for them. That is why so many of they reject the idea for a plebiscite on a political reform, like president Dilma Rousseff requested. These Congressmen put our democracy into disrepute because of they promiscuous relationship with their sponsors (not something exclusive of Brazil, but done in a very open way there).
That is why I wrote this top 10 outrageous things Brazilian politicians do.
10 – They travel abroad when problems are about to come
What do you do when your country is hosting big protests against people like you? You travel abroad, of course. The farther, the better. That was recently the case of our Speaker of the House, Eduardo Henrique Alves, and many of his Right Honorable colleagues. His wife published a picture of very happy Congressmen from all parties in Moscow during the biggest protests in Brazil in decades. Not entirely new tactics. President Dilma Rousseff went to Uruguay for a Mercosur meeting on 11 July, a day in which there was some chance of a national strike. Sao Paulo mayors are very often in Europe sometime in January, when heavy rains usually flood poor areas. I don’t know the reasoning behind this, but it is surely a popular trend among our politicians.
9 – The deputy of the deputy can be a decision maker
That is more flagrant in our Senate. Many senators are former governors. Many want to get the eight-year term in the Senate so they can safely run for governor again four years later. That is why they make agreements with voteless businessmen so they sponsor their campaigns and get some time as a real life politician sometime in those eight years. Each senator brings two deputies who will be waiting to be in their seat at some point. Not long ago the Senate ethics committee was headed by the deputy of a deputy senator. In a very controversial process that could have affected very powerful politicians, the deputy of the deputy senator decided to stop an investigation. No one knows where he is now. No one knows how he got there in the first place.
8 – If the president is away, the Speaker of the House can play
Whenever a president flies to another country, the vice-president must bizarrely take over. If the vice-president is not in Brazil, the head of the Senate takes over. If the head of the Senate is not in Brazil, the Speaker of the House takes over. I know that sounds stupid and unlikely, but it isn’t. As a way to please the Speaker of the House or the head of the Senate, the president very often takes the vice-president to many trips abroad so other politicians can enjoy the presidency for a few days. No major decisions are made during these short-lived presidencies. If the vice-president isn’t going anywhere with the president, he can make up a stupid trip only for the others to rule in the Presidential Palace for some time.
7 – Congressmen will claim even cheese bread expenses
Not a Brazil-only thing. But I doubt there is anywhere else where Congressmen want to be reimbursed for a 50 cent expense on cheese bread. I reported on a few allowances scandals there and most of the Congressmen are really displeased to be confronted with how much they spend. They say we journalists should care about billions being wasted by government. But the fact is not only they spend too much, they also do it in a very disgusting fashion. The cheese bread case was the most shocking for me. This powerful Congressman talks to a journalist for an hour, each gets his own bill. The reporter leaves his receipt and the Congressman beautifully comes back, takes it and shoves it into his jacket. He didn’t even blush.
6 – Free snacks in the Senate
Behind the chambers there is a nice cafe. I felt in the 180o’s when I entered the place. Lots of tables and people serving tea, as if Brasilia were lost somewhere in Victorian London. Senators host their sponsors and allies there. Some politicians prefer to meet in the Senate cafe because all snacks are free if you are invited by a senator. Journalists also take part of those conversations. I never accepted any of the free snacks there. It is one of the small things that show the mindset behind our politics: it is made for few people and paid for by the majority who wouldn’t even think such perks exist.
5 – No minister is ever fired. Ever.
Think for a second you are a minister. You go to an interview on TV and say you voted for the other candidate in the presidential election. Then you say to an important magazine that your colleagues are very weak. The least you would expect is to be fired right away. But in Brazil no one is ever fired: they suffer pressure to resign. It doesn’t matter if the issue is disobedience, corruption, mismanagement. Ministers are convinced to go, and sometimes that takes a lot of time and leaks to the media. After they go, they actually show up when their successors take office. They give a speech about the great times in government. And smile.
4 – Being in the coalition is what matters
Brazilian politicians take that very seriously. Take minister Guilherme Afif. He heads the recently created government branch for small businesses. And he is also in the opposition as an elected vice-governor in São Paulo. President Dilma Rousseff’s main ally in the Senate used to be a Justice Minister for opposition’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso. That is also the case for many representatives, who leave opposition parties to be with coalition parties as soon as they can. One of my favorite Brasilia tales is that of a governor who in 2003 was about to enter the Presidential Palace for the first time with an ally, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as the president. In the lobby he meets a very conservative politician of the opposition. “What are you doing here?,” leftist governor Eduardo Campos. “I have always been here,” answers the former opposition member. “What are YOU doing here?”
3 – Free travels anytime they want
They can travel within Brazil or abroad. They can take their spouses. Some times they take friends — allegedly important leaders in society. They can leave Brasilia to go to the beach and, as long as they invent some kind of official agenda at the venue, it will be fine. Ministers, Justices and some other key figures use an Air Force airplane to move around. Congressmen have an allowance to use and take commercial flights. Some also claim expenses on gas, hotels and food, despite earning about US$ 157,600 every year, according to data compiled by the Economist. That is more than in Canada (US$ 154,000), Japan (US$ 149,700), Norway (U$S 138,000), Germany (U$ 119,500), Israel (US$ 114,800) and the UK (US$ 105,400).
2 – They hire prostitutes to work as aides
On the side of the iconic Congress building in Brasilia there are two annexes. The newbies usually stay in that building, where lots of things happen, but not many see. The gigantic allowances enable Representatives to hire up to 10 aides. Some of them invest money in prostitutes that are available to them during their time in the city. That is particularly more accurate when it comes to small parties and Representatives who pretty much have their own votes, without any help from their parties. In the main building it is not rare to see pretty women by the hall of the commissions trying to make Congressmen sign up in a few bills. Some of them are just models. Others are working with well known pimps. Another interesting moment to see how much our politicians love prostitutes: twice a year mayors from all over the country march onto Brasilia. When these days end, the night is very busy in the city.
1 – They work three days a week
Important ministers love to publicize their work on Mondays and Fridays. Main reason being there are no other politicians in the city then. This is the average week for an average Congressman: arriving in Brasilia for lunch on Tuesday, going to Congress, leaving by 7 PM unless there is an important vote (most cases there isn’t), coming back early on Wednesday and staying till 7 PM again and going home on Thursday morning after some talks with colleagues in their Brasilia home. If you think this has anything to do with Brazilians allegedly being “laid-back”, I should warn I never worked less than 9 hours a day and many other Brazilians do exactly the same. When it comes to working hours, our bonds are much more to Japan than to Europe. I don’t think of that as an advantage, but surely enough Brazilian Congressmen love their European lifestyle because we pay for it.
If you go to Brasilia airport on a Thursday morning there might be enough politicians for a vote. Party leaders and key figures usually work more, but they are less than 10% of our 513 Representatives and 81 Senators. Those who go back say they will “consult with their base”, but it is a fact they are paid and elected to be in the capital and do proper work. That is also why they get a free apartment in the city.
Outrageous, isn’t it? Well, not if you are a Brazilian politician.