Seven years on, Brazil's corruption 'trial of the century' under way

Thu, Aug 2, 2012, 01:00

LETTER FROM BRAZIL:IT IS early days yet, but in Brazil they are already billing it “the trial of the century”.

After seven years of investigations, 600 witnesses and 50,000 pages of evidence, today sees 38 defendants go before the country’s supreme court charged with 1,089 crimes ranging from corruption to conspiracy.

Collectively, the group of former ministers, congressmen, bankers and marketing men stand accused of operating an illegal scheme in which the ruling Workers Party recycled stolen public money as illegal monthly payments for members of congress in order to secure their support.

The mensalão (big monthly payment) scandal first broke in June 2005 when the leader of one of the smaller parties allied to the Workers Party – angered at his bigger partner’s failure to cover his back in a separate corruption case – first provided details to the press. This being Brazil, the alleged scheme was not used to sway opposition members to the government’s side but rather congressmen from among its own allies.

In the words of Brazil’s top public prosecutor the mensalão scheme is “the gravest aggression against democratic values that can be conceived”.

When the scandal broke it set off shock waves in Brazil. As details tumbled out of three congressional inquiries and in the media President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva supposedly considered stepping down while others called for him to be impeached.

Today his former right-hand man José Dirceu – a founding member of the Workers Party and once considered his possible successor – stands accused of being the ringleader who organised the mensalão. Lula is not in the dock but for many the supreme court case will be trial by proxy of the former president’s legacy.

No one seems more aware of this than Lula himself. When the scandal first broke, he declared himself “betrayed by unacceptable practices”, dismissed Dirceu, begged the forgiveness of Brazilians and ordered his party to do the same.

Since then, however, his position has hardened. Now he views the mensalão scandal as “a farce”, nothing more than the invention of the media and opposition designed to topple the country’s first left-wing government from power.

The Workers Party’s defenders insist that all that was actually going on was ordinary decent corruption – nothing more than some illegal campaign financing endemic to Brazilian politics.

The risk for the Workers Party is that the trial and its verdict might damage its chances in key races in October’s local elections.

For Lula there is also the risk of a historic stain on the shining legacy left by eight otherwise successful years in power – all the more important for a leader who refuses to rule out a third term down the road.

In truth, the Workers Party has some grounds for feeling picked on.

Since they learnt of the mensalão Brazilians have also heard details of various mensalinhos (little monthly payments) allegedly operated by opposition parties in states under their control.

Once the supreme court is finished with the mensalão trial it will still have to judge the mensalinho mineiro which was allegedly operated by the opposition Social Democrats in Minas Gerais state.

Mountains of evidence would indicate the Workers Party “inherited” this state scheme and expanded it to the federal level on coming to power in January 2003.

While there are few clean hands in Brazilian politics, though, the Workers Party has been hoisted with its own petard.

In opposition, it long presented itself as an antidote to entrenched political corruption. For many supporters and sympathisers, the mensalão and the party’s equivocal defence was a grievous blow to hopes of cleaning up Brazilian politics.

However, there are tentative grounds for optimism.

The mensalão case has now reached the country’s top court, despite the fact that the political party at the centre of the allegations is still in power and hugely popular. It is impossible to imagine such a trial in neighbouring Argentina, where evidence of executive malfeasance does not trouble the courts.

In the words of Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the mensalão case is a historic opportunity “to show that institutions in Brazil matter”.

Also, Brazil has changed since the mensalão scandal broke. Economic growth and redistribution of wealth have created a large new lower middle class. Having emerged from poverty they are socially ambitious but still dependent on public health, education and transport. Their parents and grandparents expected and received little from the state, but they are becoming more demanding of their politicians.

“This new emerging class is increasingly self-confident and demanding greater efficiency in state provision,” says Marcos Fernandes, an economist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, “and greater efficiency means less corruption.

“The politicians who understand this will be the ones that survive in the future.”

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