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Rousseff Needs to Take Proactive Stance Against Corruption

September 22, 2011

When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff took office on January 1 of this year she pledged to fulfill the demands of the Brazilian people to reform the political status quo. Her pledge against corruption was tested as allegations of misconduct arose in her ministry. She reacted to the allegations of venality by forcing three of her ministers to resign between the months of June and August. However, at the end of August, in an attempt to reunify her coalition government, Rousseff toned down her iron determination to confront the abuse of public office and vowed not to force any more resignations. Even this promise proved impossible when her Minister of Tourism was accused of misusing public funds. Rousseff reacted appropriately by forcing the Minster of Tourism to resign on September 24. To successfully combat corruption in her government, however, Rousseff must proactively root out misconduct in her administration. By hesitating to take an active position against corruption in an attempt to avert the fragmentation of her coalition government, she is ignoring the long-term benefits of an honest government for Brazilian society.

A culture of corruption within Brazilian government has had a costly impact on the economy. The Federation of Industries of São Paulo estimated that corruption costs the nation between 1.38 and 2.3 percent of its total GDP each year. From 1990 to 2008, the siphoning of public funds for personal enrichment prevented GDP per capita from growing an additional 15.5 percent. The study went on to conclude that, had Brazil realized the gains of more efficient public spending, its GDP per capita would have been USD 9,184 in 2008 rather than USD 7,954.

Incensed by the political disregard for society, in June 2010 the Brazilian people presented a petition with 1.6 million signatures to Brazil’s Congress that demanded political reform. Under pressure for such reform, Congress passed the Clean Record Law, “Ficha Limpa.” The law bars any person who has been convicted (or who has pending allegations) of one of a range of crimes, including electoral fraud and misuse of public funds, from running for elected office. When Rousseff took office she gave the Brazilian people even more hope for a cleaner government: “It is my duty as President of all Brazilians to see an end to the impunity which shelters many of those accused of involvement in corruption practices. We will punish all abuses and excesses.”

Despite her tough demeanor and putative intolerance for corruption, Rousseff has only reacted when the media has highly publicized specific cases. In June, when Brazil’s largest daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that Chief of Staff Antonio Palocci’s income increased twentyfold from 2006 to 2010, Rousseff hesitated to act because of Palocci’s importance in the government, especially in the economic sector. Reports claim that Palocci illegally solicited his services as a corporate consultant on political matters while holding a position as a federal legislator. Although the Attorney General did not manage to bring a conviction against Palocci, he did get him to resign.

After the Palocci scandal, the Brazilian weekly magazine Veja brought to light two more cases of venality within the Rousseff administration. The magazine reported that the transport ministry had systematically overbilled contracts. After her reluctance with Palocci, Rousseff reacted quickly. Four days later, Transport Minister Alfredo Nascimento was forced to resign. A few days later, Veja published another report, this time targeting the agriculture ministry for similar overpayments. Agriculture Minister Wagner Rossi of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) was also forced to step down. Although Rousseff’s response was faster in these cases of misconduct, she still merely reacted to media coverage, rather than proactively pursuing a clean administration.

Although many Brazilian people have expressed their support for Rousseff’s anti-corruption initiatives (her public opinion ratings remain strong at 70.2 percent), according to Folha, on August 23 Rousseff pledged not to fire any more ministers. Former Congressman Fernando Gabeira commented, “President Dilma seems to be torn between not aggravating her allies – some of whom are compromised by corruption – and satisfying the needs of the people, especially now that we face a global economic crisis.” On August 2, the Party of the Republic (PR), to which the former Transport Minister belongs, broke away from Rousseff’s coalition. PR is a small party, so the loss was not particularly noteworthy. Nevertheless, future ruptures could cause major problems for Rousseff’s collection of parties. Rousseff’s announcement seemed to indicate that she would focus on short-term unity in her government instead of concentrating on the long-term benefits of an honest government by seeking out misconduct.

Despite Rousseff’s vow not to force additional ministers out of office, on September 14, Tourism Minister Pedro Novais was forced to resign after allegations arose of misuse of public funds to finance a personal maid and a driver for his wife. Rousseff’s promise was an obvious attempt to reunify her government, but it would have offered impunity to many of her allegedly corrupt government colleagues. Thankfully, Rousseff did not stick to her promise and responded appropriately to ensure Novais’ resignation.

Even though Rousseff’s reactive responses to the corruption cases are a bigger step than any former Brazilian president has taken to end dishonesty in the government, Rousseff needs to take the fight further. It is time for Rousseff to end her reactionary, media-influenced actions and take a strong, proactive stance against corruption. Even though she has duty to her broad political coalition, Rousseff must not compromise her convictions on fundamental issues, especially when confronting corruption.

Written by COHA Research Associate Katie Steefel

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. James Scoyne permalink
    September 22, 2011 4:08 pm

    Brazilians long to be a GREAT power. The place is so rotten to the core that Sodom and Gomorrah would not compete. They really could use some American ‘Lean and Mean FIGHTING machine! Yet the Samba could not allow. Alas, I think Dilma should try track and field. Sincerely JamesDS Canada

  2. September 23, 2011 9:32 am

    This article fails to acknowledge a fundamental political fact that is a key to understand the tolerance of corruption in the last 18 years: the three presidents elected since then have never had more than 100 members of congress from their parties in a 500-plus congress. Fighting corruption depends on much more than the will of the president. The political clout of corrupt politicians in the administration depends on their getting elected and specially their ability to navigate a chaotic party system.

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