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Congress Still Tramples on Brazilians’ Rights 25 Years After “Direct Now”

direct This year marks the 25th anniversary of the “Direct Elections Now” campaign – known as “Diretas Já” – to hold popular presidential elections following the end of military rule in Brazil. The event is being marked by television and radio programs and the publication of books and articles.

Old TV footage shows younger versions of familiar characters like President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, as they were a quarter of a century ago, addressing enormous rallies in the main cities.

Despite the campaign in 1984, the Brazilian people failed to obtain a direct popular election as the Congress subsequently decided that it alone would choose the next president. This contempt for popular opinion has continued to this day and the Congress is now held in such low esteem that a leading Senator and former presidential candidate, Cristovam Buarque, even suggested holding a referendum on whether to keep it open.

While few people support this proposal, the fact that it has been made by someone as widely respected as Buarque shows just what a basket case Brazil’s Congress has become.

Scandal and featherbedding are nothing new in Brazilian politics and newspapers and magazines bring fresh revelations of graft, corruption, theft and intimidation every day. Both the House of Representatives and Senate, which have 513 and 81 members, respectively, are so busy clearing up the mess caused by their own members that passing legislation is of secondary importance. This allows President Lula to run the country by decree.

The Congress’s usual method of dealing with a scandal is to huff and huff and try to ignore it. However, if the public pressure becomes too much, it sets up an internal inquiry held behind closed doors or a public inquiry known as a CPI which usually clears those involved. Once in a blue moon, a Congressman is expelled as was the case with Lula’s right-hand man, José Dirceu, who masterminded the bribes-for-votes scandal known as the “mensalão” in 2005.

Others who face expulsion escape by resigning, thereby allowing them to put a hand-picked successor in their place (often a relative) and keep their right to stand for election again. Punishment is almost non-existent, no matter how high the position or serious the crime. A few wrongdoers have been briefly arrested as an exercise in window dressing before being freed to resume their activities.

This year has been marked by a spate of scandals, mostly related to the Senate. This was the direct result of the battle between the Workers Party (PT) and the PMDB which holds the largest number of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

To the annoyance of the PT, Lula – who needs the PMDB’s backing – sat back and let the PMDB win the chairmanship of both houses of Congress. The PT then decided to get its revenge by leaking a number of items which embarrassed the PMDB and the new Senate chairman, former president José Sarney, and his allies.

Sarney was accused of using Senate security staff to protect his property in Maranhão state several thousand kilometers from Brasília. He was also found to have overseen the creation of an empire of public employees with contrived senior positions, such as director of photocopying, director of arranging air tickets etc., who were grossly overpaid.

Congressional employees were found to have been paid overtime in January when the Congress was shut down. A senior official was discovered to be the owner of a million dollar property which he had not declared to the tax authorities.

All these revelations followed an interview given by Senator Jarbas Vasconcelos to Veja magazine on February 19 in which he said most of the PMDB wanted corruption. He described the party, of which he has been a member since 1966, as: “a confederation of regional leaders, each with his own interest, more than 90% of whom practice favoritism with their eyes fixed mainly on (public) positions.”

He singled out three top members for particular criticism: Sarney, who has been accused of using his influence to enrich his family; Renan Calheiros, who resigned as Senate chairman in 2007 amid allegations of corruption; and Jader Barbalho, who also resigned from the same post in 2002 accused of plundering 2 billion reais (US$ 922 million) from public funds.

The PMDB has hit back, in turn, by publicizing embarrassing information about Tião Viana, the PT candidate Sarney beat. It turned out that Viana had loaned his daughter an official cellular phone to use during a trip to Mexico which left the taxpayer with a 14,000 reais bill (about US$ 6,400).

The PMDB also leaked information about a leading PSDB senator, Tasso Jereissati, who was accused of using 500,000 reais (US$ 230,000) of Senate funds to hire private planes even though he owned a private jet. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg and could be repeated for the House of Representatives as well as the state and municipal governments.

This is the reality of Brazilian politics today. Unfortunately voters are no longer fired by the idealism of 25 years ago when hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds took to the streets to demand their civil rights. Unless this changes, Brazilians may have to wait another 25 years before they enjoy genuine democracy as opposed to the charade which passes for parliamentary democracy today.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2009

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