All the president’s friends: dodgy allies hamper progress in Brazil

Without meaningful reform, the ‘criminalisation of politics’ continues

To understand the Janus-faced politics of Brazil, you could do worse than visit Residencial Ouro Preto, in Maceió, the capital of the northeastern state of Alagoas. A stroll around the spartan four-storey blocks of this housing development just days before last Sunday's election was the stuff of opposition nightmares. Everyone this reporter canvassed – men and women, young and old – said they were voting for the president Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers' Party.

All have sound reasons for doing so. Although the new development has a sickly smell of sewage, made worse by the tropical heat, residents say their new home is luxurious compared with their old one – a favela in a small gorge that was prone to flash floods and landslides.

Their flats are subsidised by the federal government’s housing programme, My Home My Life; most would never have been able to afford them otherwise. Cheap loans from a state bank helped furnish them, and many families here are also enrolled in Bolsa Família, a monthly benefit paid in exchange for their children going to school.

"Lula [the first Workers' Party president] and Dilma did the most of any presidents for the poor. Before, people used to go hungry around here. Now we have our flats, help, jobs," says Joema da Conceição, a local mother.


Progressive turn

Such measures to redistribute Brazil’s wealth and address some of the country’s huge social inequalities – which have their roots in slavery – are part of the progressive turn in Brazilian history since the restoration of full democracy a quarter of a century ago.

Rousseff, the country’s first woman president and a left-winger who has never been accused of any personal wrongdoing, well represents this transformation. But ask the residents of Ouro Preto if they are voting for the president’s candidate for governor and most become reticent. Enthusiasm suddenly evaporates.

Renan Filho is a member of the populist Democratic Movement of Brazil Party, Rousseff's coalition partner. The party is dominated by the 34-year-old's father, Alagoas politician Renan Calheiros, president of the senate in Brasília. On Sunday Calheiros succeeded in getting his son elected Alagoas's governor after running on the same ticket as Rousseff, who won with 50 per cent of the vote.

Now the youngest governor in Brazil, his previous experience included two terms as mayor of the family’s fiefdom of Murici. Despite being under the Calheiros thumb for more than two decades, it has one of the lowest rankings in human development of any municipality in Brazil, even as the clan has risen from humble beginnings to great – unexplained – wealth.


Corruption in Alagoas is rampant. One ongoing investigation is into the theft of more than €100 million by members of the state assembly – a huge sum anywhere, but especially in a state of just 3.3 million people. Alagoas also has the highest rates of murder, infant mortality and illiteracy in Brazil, and the supreme court in Brasília has been supinely sitting for years on a list of charges against Calheiros himself.

The wonder is why the locals keep voting in politicians who have given them so little while taking so much for themselves.

In part it is because politicians control most of the media in Alagoas and have friends in justice who keep them from being convicted of wrongdoing.

And an old tactic is alive and well in Alagoas: “Vote buying. It is open here,” says local lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Adriano Argolo. Rather than try to use the power of the federal government to clean up what Argolo calls the “criminalisation of politics”, the Workers’ Party has instead allied itself with a whole list of dubious politicians headed by Calheiros.

With less than a fifth of the seats in congress, it must make such deals to govern. But most of the corruption scandals that have cost the Workers’ Party so much of its former middle-class support are the result of these dubious alliances.

Web of lies

Calheiros caused huge embarrassment when he was caught up in a web of lies about his wealth in 2007. Lula worked to save him then, in part because Calheiros had helped save his administration during the Mensalão scandal of 2005, which was itself a scheme designed to buy allied support in congress.

Rousseff inherited these allies from her mentor and is now facing into a second-round run-off against the centre-right opposition candidate Aécio Neves with a new scandal hanging over her campaign, this time in the state oil giant Petrobras. Among those accused of involvement is Calheiros.

Some Workers’ Party members in Alagoas are furious at the order from Lula to work with the likes of Calheiros, who they say is undermining the party’s goals of a better Brazil. “Renan is a cancer, a highly aggressive cancer. How can you have progress with cancer? How can we advance as a country hand in hand with this corruption?” asks Marco Aurelio Moura da Cunha, president of the Murici branch of the Workers’ Party.

In its campaign against Rousseff, the opposition has made much of her dodgy allies. But that reeks of electioneering rather than moral outrage. Until there is meaningful reform, Brazil’s political system will continue to force its progressive souls into working with its reactionary spirits.

Aécio Neves should understand this well. The last time his Social Democrats were in power, Calheiros was one of their allies, even doing a stint in cabinet. As justice minister.