Brazil seems to have stepped through the looking glass into a theatre of the absurd. Absurd but also tragic as the country plunges deeper and deeper into economic and political crisis, to which nobody can yet see a solution.
One might think that a man accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes and hiding those millions in secret Swiss and offshore bank accounts, of practising tax evasion on a grand scale, and of lying to a Congressional committee, might see a certain incompatibility between these criminal activities and his post as President of the Chamber of Deputies, third in the line of presidential succession. Now these misdemeanours are public knowledge, one might expect him to resign in shame. Especially when he is a self-declared religious believer who takes part in public prayer meetings organised by evangelicals in Congress. But not a bit of it!
Instead, Eduardo Cunha is clinging on to office and using the power that comes with his position – including the hugely important power of deciding whether or not to proceed with impeachment proceedings against the President of the Republic — as a bargaining chip in negotiations with both opposition and government. He tells the opposition, if you support me, I´ll set impeachment proceedings rolling. And he tells the governing PT (Workers’ Party), if you support me, I’ll block impeachment attempts. It is a remarkable balancing act, and so far he has got away with it.
It is true that the Congressional Ethics Committee has agreed to open an investigation into his case at the request of left-wing deputies. The all-party committee has, in theory, the power to strip him of his mandate but it is packed with his cronies, and a third of the 21 members are themselves facing various charges in the Supreme Court.
While, in pubic, Cunha refuses to answer questions from the press about his Swiss bank accounts, behind the scenes he has lawyers in Switzerland trying to block the Swiss authorities from repatriating his ill-gotten gains.
It would be comforting to see Cunha´s behaviour as a one-off case of greed and duplicity but this is not the case: he is just an extreme example of the moral bankruptcy that characterizes the Congress elected in 2014.
Another case of flagrantly unethical behaviour are the bala, biblia and boi bancadas (lobbies) which are pushing through laws that respond to the interests of those who funded their campaigns, with little regard for the general intersts of the coutry.
The bala or gun lobby, financed by arms manufacturers, is busy watering down the Gun Statute introduced a few years ago, even though it is credited with reducing homicides. Instead of pressing for reforms in the police, the lobby wants to widen gun ownership as an answer to crime.
The biblia or bible lobby, led by Cunha himself, has tightened up the already limited abortion law, making it more difficult for women to get a legal abortion, even for those who have been raped, and extending prison terms for anyone who helps a woman to get one. So illegal abortions will continue to account for a fifth of maternal mortality, but those deaths don´t seem to count for the pro-lifers. The important thing is family values, but only those of traditional families, with a husband, wife and children. An exhibition of photos organised by Deputy Jean Wyllys to show the diversity of families – gay couples, grandparents bringing up grandchildren, and so on — was banned by Cunha, who is, of course, the authority on what is morally acceptable.
Finally the boi or bull brigade, which is the landowners and agribusiness lobby, is pushing through a Constitutional Amendment (PEC 215) to open up indigenous lands to economic interests like farming and mining. Opponents call it a “declaration of war against the Indians”.
The PEC would transfer responsibility for the marking out of indigenous territories, quilombos (lands set up by runaway slaves) and conservation units from the federal government to Congress. This would abolish rights enshrined in the 1988 Constitution. It is an example of the battering that the 1988 “Citizens’ Constitution” is taking in this Congress.
Funai, the government agency responsible for marking out indigenous land, has strongly protested, but in a move designed to muzzle the agency, the rural lobby are calling for a CPI, or Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry, into its activities.
So are the other parties out on the streets and active in social media ranting and raving against corruption? The centre-right PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party) and the right-wing Democrats, who want more than anything else to see Dilma impeached, Lula on trial and the PT in the wilderness for generations to come, are keeping their heads down, because Cunha is useful to them. Better to tolerate a corrupt Cunha, who can start impeachment proceedings, than to keep a President of the Republic who, although justifiably accused of incompetence, mismanagement and arrogance, has never been accused of taking bribes or stashing away money in Switzerland.
And what of the PT itself? Surely the one-time party of ethics is denouncing to the four winds Cunha´s bribe-taking, tax evasion and sheer robbery? No, the PT is more interested in making sure that Cunha does not kick off impeachment proceedings.
In this way Cunha, who must be the most hypocritical and corrupt President of the Chamber of Deputies ever, continues in power with his fleet of luxury cars registered in the name of a company called Jesus.com.
Meanwhile, the government´s austerity programme lies in tatters, as every measure has been delayed, rejected or made meaningless by the overwhelmingly anti-Dilma Chamber of Deputies, under Cunha´s leadership. And (just as in the UK), the main target for further austerity are the poor: a PMDB deputy has proposed cutting a third off the budget of Bolsa Familia, the internationally acclaimed social welfare programme which has lifted millions out of extreme poverty. The idea is to root out unspecified “scroungers”. Coming from a member of today´s Congress, that is rich indeed.