Cleaning House In Brazil

For four months, Brazilians followed what has become infamous worldwide as the country’s “trial of the century.” Over the course of the Mensalão proceedings, twenty five of its most influential public figures faced court for their alleged roles in a large-scale corruption scheme in which government funds were used to buy the legislative support of congressional coalition members. While the response was unprecedented, the scandal itself was unsurprising – in Brazil, corruption is commonplace. With laws and attitudes changing, however, are we soon to see an end to impunity?

At the Condal mask factory in São Gonçalo, near Rio de Janeiro, preparations for this year’s Carnival took an unexpectedly political turn. Brazil’s oldest mask producer, the company relies on the color and revelry of Carnival season for 70 percent of its annual turnover. Alongside the familiar array of soccer superstars and cartoon characters coming down off the assembly line, however, was a new face – Supreme Federal Court Judge, Joaquim Barbosa. Barbosa masks began to be manufactured last September, at the same time the solemn son of a bricklayer from a small town in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais began to preside over the unparalleled Mensalão or ‘Big Monthly Stipend’ corruption trial. Almost overnight, Barbosa became a national hero. And in the period since, his visage proved to be the popular hit of February’s Carnival, with an estimated 40,000 masks sold.

Suggestions of systematic, high-level corruption first emerged in June 2005. Roberto Jefferson, a federal deputy from a political party allied to then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Worker’s Party, had been accused of heading a corruption scheme involving Brazil’s postal service. In an interview responding to the allegations, Jefferson decided to reveal the existence of what he claimed was a vote-buying arrangement within Lula’s government. According to Jefferson, members of the large congressional coalition were receiving a monthly stipend equating to $15,000 to support legislative bills initiated by the government between 2003 and 2005. One month after the accusations came to light, a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission was set up to investigate the affair. In September that year, Jefferson had his mandate as a federal deputy revoked due to involvement in corruption.

The Mensalão scheme and subsequent public uproar fell like a bomb on Lula’s government. The former President managed to escape charges, maintaining he had been completely unaware that a scandal was brewing beneath him. He was re-elected a year after the accusations were made public, at the same time his former aides were sinking under a sea of incrimination. Eventually, many were to face an investigation the likes of which had never been seen before in Brazil. In his re-election speech, Lula responded to concerns the corruption scandals that had ravaged his first term would endure into his second: “I do not have the moral or ethical right to make any mistakes from now on.” Upon leaving office in 2011 as constitutionally mandated, Lula enjoyed an 87 percent approval rating.

Less than two years later, 25 of Brazil’s leading public figures have been accused of, tried for and convicted of participating in a large-scale corruption scheme in which public funds were used to buy the legislative cooperation of coalition members. Congressmen, advertising agents and members of the upper echelon of the Workers Party – including Lula’s own Chief of Staff and party co-founder, José Dirceu – faced charges ranging from money laundering and misuse of public funds, to active and passive corruption and formation of a criminal organization. As a public spectacle, the Mensalão trial was impressive. The eleven judges of the Supreme Federal Court met in a total of 53 sessions in Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic modernist Palace in Brasilia. During the course of the related series of investigations, 500 witnesses were interrogated and court proceedings ran to 50,000 pages. Amongst a host of other successful prosecutions, Dirceu was sentenced to ten years and ten months in jail.