Brazil’s soiled hero
By Ignacio Ramonet
Le Monde diplomatique
‘NEITHER Brazil nor the Brazilian people deserve this,” said President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, shaken by a four-month-long corruption scandal involving ministers and leaders of his own Workers’ party (PT). The scandal was jubilantly revealed by the media and worsened by public accusations from politicians under fire. It swept through the political scene with the force of a hurricane, and the saga has come to resemble a television soap series (1).
It is alleged that Lula’s close associates, especially José Dirceu, his “civil chief of staff” (which is equivalent to a prime minister), organised a vast system of kickbacks to secure the votes of deputies from parties allied with the PT (2). About €10,000 a month was paid to each bribed politician from a slush fund that had been fed with public money.
It is also alleged that the campaign leading to Lula’s election as president was funded by a sophisticated system of embezzlement that had been set up in 2002.
So far there is no proof of the personal involvement of the head of state. Nor would it seem that the political leaders of the PT implicated in the scandal lined their own pockets. They were the corrupters rather than the corrupted, acting for the greater good of their party as they saw it.
Since January 2003 the PT has governed with the support of various allies. But that support does not give it a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. So it has been forced to seek the neutrality or support of large conservative parties: the Brazilian Social Democratic party, the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement and the Liberal Front party.
In Brazil, parliamentary representatives are traditionally independent of the parties whose badges they wear. They readily change allegiance and are therefore highly susceptible to all forms of corruption. As in many other countries, corruption is a constant factor in politics, whatever party is in power.
This time, however, with the PT in office and Lula as president, the people of Brazil hoped political corruption was a thing of the past.
The PT had made morality its main election platform. It had claimed again and again that “participatory democracy” in the cities and states where the PT held power was the best guarantee against corruption. And it had invented and exported the idea of the participatory budget as a model for the collective control of public finances. After all, wasn’t Lula, a man born in poverty who, by the force of his will and intellect, had made his way against terrific odds, the very example of an honest politician?
The present disappointment is proportionate to the hopes raised by Lula’s election in October 2002, when it seemed a new era had begun, an era of social justice for Brazil’s disinherited masses (3).
Yet to some people the scandal came as no surprise. The left wing of the PT, like the Movement of the Landless and other powerful social movements, had long warned against the aberrations of a government that was reluctant to implement essential social reforms but, egged on by the International Monetary Fund, had happily pursued an economic policy far removed from its promises to the electorate.
The amazing thing is that, in the process, the PT had appealed to corrupt rightwing parliamentarians to push through rightwing legislation.
Naturally, the conservative parties, which have been wallowing in corruption for decades, have now taken the moral high ground. Washington is shedding no tears for Lula. His innovative South-South diplomacy has been a source of irritation, as is Brazil’s pivotal role in a Latin America which is driven by the new Venezuela-Cuba axis and the increasingly left-leaning Argentina, Uruguay and Panama.
Addressing the nation in August, Brazil’s president presented his apologies, claiming to have been “betrayed by unacceptable practices of which I was not aware”.
The next election is due in October 2006. Will Lula have succeeded by then in restoring the bond with Brazil’s people, who made an icon of him but then saw their dreams shattered?
Translated by Barry Smerin
(1) A detailed chronology of the scandal is accessible at Mensalão scandal, which is on the website of the Wikipedia free encyclopaedia.
(2) The Liberal party, Brazilian Communist party, Socialist People’s party, Democratic Labour party, Brazilian Socialist party, Green party and the Brazilian Progressive party.
(3) See “Viva Brazil!”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, January 2003.