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Will Brazil’s Sarney Fall on His Sword?

Senator José Sarney from Brazil Senator José Sarney from Brazil

Senator José Sarney from Brazil The Senate chairman, José Sarney, is following in the tradition of his predecessors and abusing the power entrusted by his office to enrich himself and his relatives. As this is how he has been operating in half a century of political life we should not be surprised, but perhaps we could expect higher standards from a man who was President of the Republic for five years and has been Senate chairman on two previous occasions.  

He also has the backing of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who, in his more idealistic days, regarded Sarney as a representative of everything that was corrupt and reactionary. Lula has been vociferous in his support of Sarney but there are now signs that this backing might be withdrawn and Sarney will be forced to step down as have three of his predecessors over the last decade.

So much for the idea that the Senate should be a place for statesmen. Indeed some disgusted members of Lula’s PT party have even called for it to be abolished.

When Sarney, who is a member of the PMDB, was elected head of the Senate at the beginning of this year he beat a candidate from Lula’s Workers Party (PT). Lula backed Sarney instead of his own party member as he needed the support of the PMDB which is the largest party in Congress. However, if Sarney and the PMDB thought that was the end of the matter they were wrong. The disgruntled PT members set about unleashing a torrent of leaks about the questionable track records and shady deals involving prominent members of the PMDB.

This led to a crisis within the PMDB, with two of its leading senators turning on their own party and accusing it of containing people who were only interested in obtaining positions in order to loot the public coffers. The PMDB leadership shrugged off this criticism which it claimed was so vague as not worth investigating and set about trying to throw some dirt on members of the PT.

In other countries allegations like these could lead to political turmoil but not in Brazil where they are routine and no-one is surprised at anything that elected representatives get up to. However, like one of TV Globo’s interminable novelas, this scandal went further as it uncovered a vast number of scams within the administration of the Congress.

It turned out that there existed a whole network of Senate staff that was overpaid, given inflated titles often for trivial positions – overseeing photocopying or booking air tickets, for example – and were claiming overtime payments even during periods when Congress was in recess. These promotions and hires had been made through illegal acts which the public knew nothing about.

Senators who were responsible for overseeing all this, including Sarney, denied any knowledge of wrongdoing. A few sacrifices were made of some senior officials who resigned although no actual punishment was administered despite the blatant wrongdoing that had been occurring.

Trying to shift the blame to the officials did not put an end to the matter and the press stoked the scandal almost on a daily basis and uncovered a vast ring of nepotism. Various attempts have been made to end nepotism over the years and laws have been passed but to little avail.

Once again, none of this was particularly new and Brazilian politicians have traditionally employed their relatives and friends even when they were unqualified. In many case, these public employees do not even bother to turn up for work but just cash their monthly paychecks and enjoy the associated benefits and perks.

Sarney and his family found themselves singled out as it emerged that a host of members of the Sarney clan were on the public payroll. One of his nephews was found to be running a business which made loans to public employees and was never seen at his workplace. Sarney’s generosity to his family was such that it even extended to the former boyfriend of one of his granddaughters. To his embarrassment, a taped telephone conversation was released in which Sarney is heard discussing how to get him a cushy job.

It was also revealed that his daughter, Roseana, the governor of Maranhão, had a personal butler who was on the public payroll. This butler received the astonishing monthly salary of 12,000 Brazilian reais (around US$ 6,000) a fortune by Brazilian standards where the minimum wage is 465 reais (US$ 245).

Despite all this evidence of incompetence and immoral – not to say illegal – behavior, Sarney has blustered and given no sign of standing down. A number of senators have called on him to step down and Lula is also facing a revolt by PT senators who do not understand why they should have to defend someone like Sarney just so that Lula can rely on the PMDB.

The Senate ethics committee has received four official complaints but whether it will do anything is another matter. At the time of writing the Estado de S. Paulo has just reported that the chairman of the ethics committee, Paulo Duque, who, needless to say is from the PMDB, hired a lawyer to advise it last November. The only problem is that this lawyer is based in Rio de Janeiro and has never been seen in Congress. For this “work,” he receives a monthly salary of 5,000 reais (US$ 2,633).

Congress is due to go into recess shortly and Sarney may feel he can ride out the storm. Perhaps he will but there is such a great pressure that it is difficult to see him having any authority to continue to run the Senate especially as a majority of senators will be standing for election next year and will not want to be too closely associated with him.

The likeliest outcome is that he will either stand down temporarily to “prepare his defense” – the usual quaint term used in these circumstances – or resign in order to maintain his civil rights (including being able to stand for office again) should any action be taken against him.

Any chance of him admitting that he was wrong and apologizing to the population can be excluded. Brazilian readers will recall that this is the man who had the prescience to withdraw all his savings from Banco Santos the day before it went bust and the Central Bank took it over in November 2004. Several thousand other accountholders lost everything and are still involved in a legal dispute to try and get something but not former President Sarney.

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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