Rajika Jayatilake applauds the efforts of Brazilians to fight against corrupt regimes

ca-gib-nov16It is a modern phenomenon: poverty-stricken democracies are forced to fight bribery, corruption and the existence of illegal bank accounts of its leaders. It is also a modern phenomenon that the public in those countries revolt against corrupt leaders, and oust them through elections, mass protests or impeachment.

The latest nation to do so is Brazil.

Since 2013, Brazilians have protested against corruption, provoked mostly by the scandals of its leaders profiting from the state-owned oil company Petrobras, which is considered one of the largest corporates in Latin America.

Brazil’s government is the largest shareholder of Petrobras, while thousands of ordinary Brazilians are minority shareholders. The police eventually uncovered massive corruption at Petrobras, and it is believe that as much as US$ 12 billion had been siphoned off. Investigations have led to 179 individuals being charged, of whom 93 have been convicted.

What led to this mass-scale exposure is the determination and courage of a new group of prosecutors and judges, who refused to give in to political pressure. Instead, they focussed on ensuring that all citizens were treated equally before the law. The Financial Times refers to one fearless federal judge, Sérgio Moro, who apparently handled most of the cases that resulted from the investigations.

Recently, federal prosecutors filed corruption charges against Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aka Lula. Elected Brazil’s president in 2002, Lula worked hard to help over 30 million poor Brazilians find their way out of poverty. His mass-scale social welfare programmes were based on children attending school regularly, and obtaining scheduled vaccinations.

The economy boomed along with the global commodity surge – and suddenly, Brazil became a superstar in the developing world. The process became known as the ‘Brazil model,’ or ‘Lula Model.’ When Lula stepped down from power in 2010, he had an 87 percent approval rating. Even the US President Barack Obama has said that Lula was “the most popular politician on Earth,” adding: “I love that guy.”

However, according to the New York Times, Lula was “the mastermind of a sprawling graft scheme intended to maintain his party’s grip
on the presidency.” Prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol referred to Lula as the “ultimate commander” of huge bribery plots, which provided leeway to his left-oriented Workers’ Party to engage with Congress.

Even though prosecutors are not accusing Lula of personally lining his pockets, they charge that the money was pocketed by oil executives, Workers’ Party leaders and lawmakers. Prosecutors demand that Lula returns the stolen money to the national coffers. In addition, they allege that he and his wife received US$ 1.1 million illegally, from a large construction company, as consideration for public contracts. Lula is also being charged for obstructing investigations into bribery scandals.

He has denied all charges.

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International says that 60 percent of Brazil’s 594 Congress members face serious charges such as bribery, electoral fraud, illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide. At the same time, Brazilian watchdog group Congresso em Foco, which monitors corruption among lawmakers, notes that “winning election to Congress is a licence to steal, for certain figures… And in this grotesque system, the biggest thieves are those who wield the most power.”

Scholars monitoring the situation have observed that “sweeping legal protection” is provided to about 700 senior officials, including all Cabinet ministers and Members of Congress. They can only be tried by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, which could take years, with appeals and delays.

Moreover, Lula’s successor, whom he mentored – Brazil’s first female president Dilma Rousseff – was impeached and ousted from office in August, on charges of manipulating the federal budget. She had allegedly used funds of large public banks to bridge budget gaps and conceal mounting economic woes, thus bruising Brazil’s economic credibility.

However, among the country’s corruption-tainted political leaders, she has not been accused of stealing to fill her own purse.

Brazil’s new president, constitutional lawyer Michel Termer, who stepped into the presidential shoes with the ousting of his predecessor, isn’t the most popular leader of a country. But he is, apparently, attempting to rebuild his nation’s image, and restore investor confidence by attracting capital from corporate and foreign investors.

Even as Brazil endeavours to wash off the stains of political corruption, there appears to be no corruption-free leader to assume the highest office. Lula could run again for the presidency, in 2018 – and he could win, unless he’s imprisoned for corruption before then. While many Brazilians are grateful to him for the best years of their lives, some former supporters are disillusioned.

Brazil is the most recent example of a poverty-ridden democracy revolting against corrupt leaders, and demanding honesty from elected governments. Social media has been vital in educating citizens about ongoing corruption and instigating the ouster of undesirables. Immoral leaders, shameless as they are, are getting the message: rule honourably, or get out.

Indeed, Brazil is the latest democracy to stand up for the rights of its citizens.