Brazil’s institutions do fight corruption, but people are still tolerant
After waves of colossal protests in 2013 and 2015, it is very tempting to say Brazilians are fed up with corruption and want real transparency and accountability for whatever is done in their name. That may hold true for well-educated and politically savvy people that are now reshaping the country’s institutions; judges, prosecutors, investigators, controllers, intelligence agents, technocrats… But that vast majority in Brazil actually cares too little. Organized society is disorganized and citizen engagement isn’t nearly as important as it is in developed nations. Unlike the protesting crowds suggest, Brazilians only care about corruption when it involves those they reject for other reasons.
A favorite among political leaders is to say that mechanisms against corruption have to be discussed with society. But on the sidelines they say it loud and clear: society rarely talks back. “Brazilians love to speak out when those scandals are on the news, but that is just a thing that they say,” an independent congresswoman once told me. “They say that they care, but they don’t even follow who they voted for. One of my colleagues is wanted by Interpol and he repeatedly gets reelected by many of those that want to fight corruption all the time. Brazil is doing better, but it is because of policy makers and political leaders, regrettably it is not because of voters. I wish that they cared.”
That comes from someone who works in the institution that best represents Brazilian tolerance towards corruption: our clearly unaccountable and proud of it Congress. Our senators and representatives are just as flawed as average people, who react to every new scandal with a scandalous meh. Indignation indeed cooks for very long until it bursts its bubble in Brazil. Accusations that would end careers of whips and speakers in other nations often “end in a pizza” here — that expression means no condemnation at all. Politicians caught red-handed will only resign if almost all their peers reject their presence. When it does happen, the process could take more than two months.
If voters cared more about corruption that would be solved presto.
Yes, Brazilians do protest now against the sensation of accumulated corruption. And some are willing to go to the streets against a political party they dislike when it is involved in a big scheme. But that outrage is selective. It is as if there were right-wing and left-wing crimes. People pick and choose what to protest against. That is why there is such a slow pace for public reaction against corruption cases; people start by thinking any accusation is both true and a result of partisanship. When the corrupt have more time to deal with charges, impunity tends to prevail. Maybe it would be different if there were a widespread sense of urgency coming from citizens.
If Brazilians cared enough about corruption there would be a bigger scrutiny on each of the more than 50 politicians involved in the current Petrobras scandal. Quite on the contrary. Most are simply ignored and carry on doing whatever they like. Some others are hailed as heroes. On the opposition side, there are many advocates for controversial speaker Eduardo Cunha, a man that has dozens and dozens of accusations against him — the fondness comes because he has the right to start an impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. On the pro-government camp, many cherish former minister José Dirceu because he illegally acted as a lobbyist to constructors so he could embezzle funds for the Worker’s Party (PT). All these folks still take selfies with voters.
Dirceu is one of these exceptions to the rule, many people love to hate him. He cannot fly in commercial planes for the sheer risk of being attacked, as happened multiple times. But even in that case it has more to do with very partisan citizens taking action against a PT leader that was very powerful. The vast majority won’t have any idea of what the former Chief of Staff for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did — he was convicted for leading a kick-backs for political support scheme, but there is so much press for him that he has been accused of almost every crime. Other politicians that are as convicted as he is never get the same treatment. They can go anywhere they like. Opposition leaders that were caught are given the benefit of the doubt of their followers.
On the pro-government side that flawed anti-corruption vision is more evident now. Although they were very determined to call foul during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso years at the Palácio do Planalto (1995-2002), they just gave a pass to President Lula (2003-2010) whenever a scandal emerged. After all, they would suggest, what really mattered were the social programs and the economic development Brazil was experiencing. Those in the Worker’s Party who were keen on pointing all the crimes that leaders were involved in… Well, they were shown out. They could only do that because average people kept a high tolerance towards corruption. Now that the economic tide has changed, these fans channel some of their income frustrations in the debate about corruption.
At the same time that Brazil’s leaders managed to reinforce institutions and end the times in which the wealthy and privileged never got to see a jail from the inside, João Average only wanted to buy a new gigantic TV set. A TV set that he turns off when the news are on — it is such a downer… He is sure that there is corruption everywhere in government, but will only keep buzzwords on his mind, like Petrobras, mensalão, subway cartel. He might even go to protests. It could be that slightly left-wing one of two years ago or the right-wing ones of today. But that kind of presence has more to do with pre or post-election dissatisfaction than with an anti-corruption agenda. Not that people are for corruption, but they can’t elaborate an agenda to fight it.
That is why speaker Cunha remains unknown to many Brazilians and gets to keep his job despite the accusation of taking more than US$ 5 million from a lobbyist. He might be removed by the Supreme Court without a single protest in front of his house — and that is basically because the institutions are working.
Political ignorance surely isn’t a Brazilian exclusive, but here tolerance with corruption and ignorance walk hand in hand like in few places. To make their combat to corruption more effective, Brazil needs more than improving institutions; it needs people to mature in the political debate. One that observes the quality of the Brazilian public square can only conclude that real improvement and a change in the tolerance culture will take quite a while.