Political Corruption in Brazil

Etymologically the word "corruption" comes from the Latin verb "corruptus" (to break); it literally means broken object. Conceptually, corruption is a form of behavior, which departs from ethics, morality, tradition, law and civic virtue.  The United Nation's Global Programme Against Corruption defines corruption as the "abuse of power for private gain" and includes thereby both the public and private sector. Although perceived differently from country to country, corruption tends to include the following behaviors: conflict of interest, embezzlement, fraud, bribery, political corruption, nepotism, sectarianism and extortion.

In 2001, Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 91 countries posits Brazil in 46th place and right in the middle of the pack.  This is not necessarily something to be complacent about, since the company included the likes of Peru, Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia and Czech Republic.  As for the citizenry, Brazilians may be less sanguine since their media have never found it hard to come up several stories of corruption every day.

The longest running story of political corruption involves former president Fernando Collor de Mello.  An otherwise obscure governor of the state of Alagoas, he was propelled into the national scene single-handedly by the media giant TV Globo as its champion to defeat the Workers' Party candidate Luiz Inácio da Silva.  Upon securing the Presidency, Collor de Mello apparently went on a binge of corrupt extortions through his advisor Paulo César Farias with barely any attempt to be subtle or secretive (namely, direct payment in the form of checks).  In September 1992 Collor was impeached following a vote of 441 to 38 by the Chamber of Deputies of the Brazilian legislature on charges of corruption.  Collor, while maintaining his innocence, stepped down, allowing Vice-President Itamar Franco to become the country's acting president. In December 1992, at the opening of his impeachment trial by the Brazilian Senate, Collor resigned as President of Brazil. The Senate convicted Collor of the corruption charges by a vote of 76 to 3. The verdict barred him from holding public office for a period of eight years. Collor also faced criminal prosecution on the corruption charges. Franco replaced Collor as president. In December 1994 Collor was acquitted of corruption by the Supreme Federal Tribunal on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  Rosane Collor, wife of the President was also convicted and sentenced in abstentia to 11 years in prison for corruption.  In June 1996, Paulo César Farias was found shot to death with this girl friend in a beach house in Maceió, state of Alagoas sometime before he was scheduled to testify in court about corruption during the Collor administration.  This is just the sort of lurid tale that can breed numerous conspiracy theories.

PC Farias & girlfriend, dead

Such tales of high crimes are not limited to one presidential family.  In 2002, presidential hopeful Roseana Sarney (daughter of a former president) abruptly discontinued her presidential campaign after a police raid on her company uncovered a mysterious $R 1.3 million (US $558,000).  Sarney had been running on an anti-corruption platform, and her various explanations of the money were unbelievable (e.g. donations from unnamed political supporters?). 

Corruption exists not just at high places.  On a daily basis, the media have no trouble in finding dozens of stories of corrupt practices, ranging from high-level bureaucrats who accept bribes to award contracts or cut red tape, to political hacks who are paid for no-show government jobs, to minor functionaries who can expedite license and visa applications, to traffic policemen who can ignore traffic violations for a jeitinho.  


We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 5,312 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted during the first half of 2002.  The survey area covers nine major cities (Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Sao Paulo) as well as the interior of Sao Paulo state and south/southeastern Brazil.  During the survey, the respondents were shown a statement: "The first thing that the government needs to do is end corruption."  Of the respondents, 82% said that they 'completely agreed' and 12% said they 'somewhat agreed.'  No other issue (be it employment, education or national security) garners as much support.

Corruption breeds distrust of public institutions, undermines ethical principles by rewarding those willing and able to pay bribes, and perpetuates inequality.  Individuals who wish to conduct their affairs fairly and honestly are demoralized and lose faith in the rule of law.  Economic competition is distorted and public funds are squandered.  As institutional and market reforms may lose credibility in the eyes of the public, processes of democratization (which should eventually reduce inequalities and improve transparency and accountability) lose momentum.  Until the corruption issue is addressed, all other processes are ineffective.

In the next chart, we show the agree rate by age/sex categories.  As a reminder, in Brazil, persons who are 16 years or older can vote.  Voting becomes mandatory after the 18th birthday.  From this chart, the agree rates are slightly lower among the 12-19 years olds of both sex and females 20-24 years old.  What is not clear is if these lower rates are the result of the absence of awareness, or the disillusionment and pessimism due to the presence of awareness.

In the next chart, we show the agree rates by socio-economic status.  There is consensus across class boundaries about the corruption issue.  In an extraordinary interview with the newsweekly Veja, Collor's own brother Pedro said that the bribes demanded were so high that his family's own enterprises would be driven to bankrupt.  

In October 2002, Brazil heads towards another round of presidential elections.  The leading candidate is once again the Workers' Party's Luiz Inácio da Silva.  Although the Worker' Party has never won any major national elections, its strength is that its local victories have resulted in relatively clean governments.  If the issue of political corruption is so paramuont on the minds of the people, there may not be any other white knight on the horizon.


(posted by Roland Soong, 7/07/2002)

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