Demonstrators in front of ALERJ Assembly building in Rio, in April 2017

1 December 2017. Just over a year ago, Rio was on a roll, basking in post-Olympic glory, applauded all over the world for a successful Games. Now the arrest of its most prominent politicians has exposed the rotten underbelly of the ‘cidade maravilhosa’, the beautiful city. They are facing accusations of blatant, scandalous corruption schemes that have been ripping off the public purse for years.

Police persecution of the drug dealers who have turned Rio’s favelas into no-go areas has left a trail of innocent victims, shot by mistake during gun battles, and the streets have become too dangerous for children to walk to school, so that thousands miss classes for days on end. Meanwhile, the real crooks turn out to be the ones inside the grand ornate palaces of government.

The gilded Palacio Laranjeiras, official residence of the governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Wikimedia

These include three past state governors , Sergio Cabral, Anthony Garotinho and Rosinha Garotinha and three past and present presidents of ALERJ, Rio’s legislative assembly, Jorge Picciani, Edson Albertassi and Paulo Melo. All are members of the PMDB. All are now behind bars, after a series of dawn raids which the federal police, with their well-practised sense of irony called “Operation ‘C’est fini’”. This was a reference to the drunken revelries of the group in Paris a few years ago, caught on camera at a banquet.

Sergio Cabral’s happy memories of Paris in 2012

The politicians share cells with their partners in crime, bosses of some of the Rio’s biggest bus companies. While the population had to travel in fleets of old, overcrowded buses, armoured security vans were regularly picking up bags of money from the bus garages to pay bribes to Sergio Cabral and the other politicians. In exchange the governor authorised higher-than-inflation fare increases.

State governor Sérgio Cabral in a solemn session in February 2011 for Rio de Janerio state deputies to take their seats and swear the constitutional oath. Foto: Shana Reis

In view of the overwhelming evidence of the accused men’s crimes produced by the prosecutors of Lava Jato, you might have expected fellow members of ALERJ to vote the immediate suspension of their imprisoned colleagues. Not a bit of it. Instead they convened an emergency session of the Assembly to override the federal court decision and vote for their release. They packed the public galleries with staff to prevent the real public from watching the session and they turned away a justice official who arrived with a court order for the public to be admitted. As soon as the vote was won, by a large majority, an official car was dispatched to the prison to rescue the suspects. But so outrageous was this move, that two days later the federal court unanimously overturned it and the deputies were back behind bars.

Prosecutors under attack

The prosecutors from the various task forces responsible for the Lava Jato investigations, worried about moves to undermine or even stop their investigations, have released a statement in defence of their work. They say that “positions of importance in public agencies are filled by politicians and parties in order to collect bribes. The money enriches criminals and finances campaigns, distorting democracy, generating economic inefficiency, accentuating inequality and weakening public services”.

So far, out of 416 people accused of money laundering and organised crime, 144 have been sentenced to a total of over 2,130 years in prison and over 11 billion reais has been recovered. But, say the prosecutors, even after so many scandals, neither Congress nor the parties suspended those politicians involved in crimes. On the contrary, accusations against influential politicians have united much of the political class against the investigations and investigators, and in favour of various proposed laws that would threaten investigations.

Video by ‘Gabriel O Pensador’ (Gabriel the thinker), from October 2017. The rapper’s song ‘I’m happy – I killed the president’, in which he denounces corruption, has been a hit watched by over 3 million on YouTube.

This battle between the prosecutors and the judiciary, trying to crack down on corruption, and the legislature, more concerned with defending its own, is being fought up and down Brazil. A recent Supreme Court decision, allowing the Senate to release Senator Aecio Neves from restrictions imposed on him while he awaits trial on corruption charges, set an unfortunate precedent.

Forum of privilege

Now the STF, or Supreme Court, has begun to debate the so called ‘privileged forum’ (foro privilegiado), the special court for authorities. No other country has such a widespread system to benefit those holding public office accused not only of political crimes, but common crimes too. Over 40,000 politicians are covered by it. As the political class in Brazil includes an inordinately large number of people facing criminal charges, it means that the STF is overloaded, and cases can take years to be heard, during which time the suspects are free to continue making laws, and in the case of the president and his ministers, running the country.

Temer’s friend Fernando Segovia, the new Director General of the Polícia Federal

Proof that the prosecutors’ concerns are justified came with President Temer’s choice of the new federal police chief, Fernando Segovia, who has close links to several PMDB ministers and ex-president José Sarney, all currently under investigation. As though to spell out what this meant, Temer himself went to Segovia’s inauguration, and was rewarded with a declaration by the new police boss that “just one suitcase is not proof of corruption.” He was referring to the moment when a Temer ally was filmed running to a car with a suitcase that turned out to contain almost R$500,000 in cash.

Rodrigo Rocha Loures, Temer’s man, with the suitcase he was filmed using to collect cash. Photo montage: Portal LM

Meanwhile, the damage wreaked by Temer’s need to buy support in congress continues apace. His new cities minister, the hirsute and therefore rather inappropriately named Alexandre Baldy, immediately announced changes to the social housing programme Minha Casa Minha Vida, which would exclude families on the lowest income level.

In government agencies like INCRA, IBAMA, FUNAI, técnicos are being substituted willy nilly with political appointees chosen by the political parties who form Temer’s support base in congress.

The scientific community is appealing against the drastic cuts that are threatening research and even the work of INPE in gathering information on deforestation and fires in the Amazon.

Off-shore bonanza

But at the same time that he is squeezing ministries and agencies dry of funds and technicians, Temer is offering a multi-billion dollar tax relief plan for high- risk offshore drilling in the ‘pre-salt’ fields along the Brazilian coast, which would mostly benefit British companies BP and Shell. Apparently the UK government lobbied on their behalf. Over a hundred NGOs have signed a letter of protest to congress: “It is a backward step. They are taking money from education, health and public safety to give to foreign oil companies,” said a WWF analyst.

The chameleon race

Meanwhile the 2018 presidential race has begun to dominate the political scene.

Getting rid of the ‘P’. Cartoon in article by Juliana Cipriani on em.com.br

And in preparation, like so many chameleons, the parties are shedding their traditional names and adopting new ones, apparently in the hope of persuading voters that they have nothing to do with the old identities, tainted by corruption. Surveys show that the political parties lag far behind all other institutions in terms of public trust. Maybe, the thinking seems to be, a shiny new name will help?

The changing party names and logos: images from Poder360.com.br

So the PTdoB will become Avante, the PSL becomes Livres, and the PTN is now Podemos. Their inspiration comes from Europe, where movements are replacing parties, like En Marche in France, 5 Stelle in Italy and of course Podemos in Spain. Others among Brazil’s 35 existing parties are also thinking about changing their names, with Mude, Patriota, Progressistas, Igualdade, Manancial, Patriotas, and Força Brasil among the options.

Of the three largest parties, only the PMDB wants to change, but merely by returning to its original name MDB, without the obligatory initial P foisted on all the parties in 1979 by the military, some say, to confuse the voters. The PT has no intention of adopting a new name, although for many Brazilians, “petista” has become a term of abuse, as when minister Romero Jucá used it against a woman who shouted at him on a plane.

The PSDB, totally split between leaving and staying in the Temer government, has no time to worry about names. But the policy of having your cake and eating it could crumble at any moment under pressure from Temer’s supporters in the smaller parties, resentful that the tucanos (the PSDB’s nickname comes from the toucan which is their mascot) hold power even when they vote against the government.

Guns and egos

Lula remains the front runner in the opinion polls, with ex-army Lt. Jair Bolsanaro in second place. But the more Bolsanaro tries to expound his ideas, the more he loses support, as people realise he has no real plans, policies, or experience. Even the Bancada Ruralista, or rural lobby, to whom he hoped to appeal by promising to smash the MST and distribute guns to landowners, found him too radical. After all, they are supposed to be the face of modern agriculture, of ‘agro-tec’ as their lavish TV adverts claim.

Two other would-be contenders have bitten the dust – TV Globo entertainer Luciano Huck, who flourished briefly before resigning from the race, and the showbiz mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, who has had to tuck his giant ego under his right wing and retreat, after a series of gaffes which saw his popularity plummet .

The judiciary continues to be a possible source of outsider candidates. Besides judge Sergio Moro, who somehow finds time to participate in congresses and debates up and down the country, ex-Supreme court judge Joaquim Barbosa is also touted.

After internal skirmishes, the PSDB is settling around the uncharismatic, but solid São Paulo governor, Geraldo Alkmin. Although the PSDB government, which has run Brazil’s largest state for almost 20 years, also faces a number of corruption investigations, the state prosecutors have been far less energetic than those elsewhere in bringing charges.

The PMDB have all the power but no obvious presidential name. It is rumoured that Temer himself, buoyed by his success in surviving two votes in congress to remove him, might even be tempted to try his luck, despite his less than 5% approval ratings.

There are two possible women candidates, Marina Silva of Rede Sustentabilidade, and Manuela D’Avila, of the PC do B, which after years of supporting the PT candidate might go it alone this time.

Clipping Lula’s wings

Meanwhile Lula continues to lead the polls by a large margin. If he is not stopped by one of the many court cases now under way against him, some of which have gone the appeal stage after he was found guilty of taking bribes in kind, it seems that another obstacle is being prepared – the return of the parliamentary system to dilute the power of an elected president. Under the constitution, such a change should be authorised by a plebiscite, but attempts are being made to short circuit this and allow the change to be approved by Congress, without a plebiscite. It seems that anything goes in the battle to stop Lula returning to power.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil

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