How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Six decades ago, long before the Brazilian Senate’s August 2016 vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff and remove her from office, one of the most beloved leaders in the country’s history was besieged by scandals of his own. President Getúlio Vargas, a stocky, gravelly voiced gaucho from Brazil’s deep south, had granted new rights, including paid vacation, to a generation of workers in the 1930s and 1940s. But after Vargas returned to power in 1951, one of his top aides was charged with murder, and Vargas himself faced allegations that the state-run Bank of Brazil had granted sweetheart loans to a pro-government journalist. “I feel I am standing in a sea of mud,” Vargas lamented. After a late-night cabinet meeting on August 24, 1954, failed to solve the crisis, and with numerous generals demanding his resignation, Vargas withdrew to his bedroom, grabbed a Colt pistol, and shot himself through the heart.
Ever since, corruption scandals have continued to routinely upend Brazilian politics. In 1960, the mercurial Jânio Quadros won the presidency by campaigning with a broom, vowing to sweep away the thieving “rats” in Brasília—only to quit after eight tumultuous months in office. Following a 1964 military coup, widespread disgust at the corruption of civilian politicians helped Brazil’s generals hold on to power for two decades. In 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello—the first president to be elected following the restoration of democracy—was impeached over allegations that he and members of his inner circle had embezzled millions.
Last August, Rousseff, the country’s first female president, became the latest Brazilian politician to see her career wrecked in part by revelations of graft. The technical grounds for her impeachment were that she had manipulated the federal budget to conceal the scale of the country’s mounting deficits. In reality, however, the impeachment was driven by public anger at a president who had overseen the country’s worst recession in more than a century and by the exposure of a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal that made Vargas’ “sea of mud” look like a tiny pond. Operation Car Wash, as the investigation has come to be known, uncovered massive graft involving government officials, business leaders, and the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras—the board of which Rousseff herself had chaired before becoming president in 2011. Although Rousseff is not accused of personally profiting from the corruption scheme, prosecutors say that illegal proceeds were used to finance her electoral victories in 2010 and 2014 (Rousseff denies any wrongdoing). Several operatives from her Workers’ Party, including its former treasurer, Rousseff’s media guru, and a former senator, have been jailed on charges of money laundering and other crimes.
Rousseff’s successor, President Michel Temer, took office hoping to turn the page—to no avail. Some within Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), including several members of Temer’s cabinet, were also allegedly involved in the corruption at Petrobras. Just weeks after Temer took office, his minister of transparency, Fabiano Silveira, was forced to resign after a secret recording was leaked in which he appeared to advise the president of the Senate, another member of the PMDB, on how to avoid prosecution. In a February poll, 65 percent of Brazilians surveyed said they thought Temer’s government was just as corrupt (or more so) than Rousseff’s. Just ten percent approved of his government’s performance, placing Temer’s own political survival in jeopardy.
With public anger on the rise and the economy still stagnant, Brazilian democracy is now at its most vulnerable point since the return of civilian rule three decades ago, and it risks lapsing into long-term dysfunction or the “soft authoritarianism” currently sweeping the globe. The struggles of Rousseff and Temer, like those of their predecessors, illustrate why it’s time for Brazil to take a radically new approach to preventing corruption. Only by renouncing their special privileges and committing to genuine reform will Brazil’s politicians be able to ward off disaster and regain the public’s trust.
The history of corruption in Latin America has generally been one of dramatic headlines but few consequences for the guilty. While he was in office, Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president during the 1990s, proudly drove a bright red Ferrari that he had received as a gift from a businessman. “It’s mine, mine, mine!” he crowed. Menem’s brazen behavior reflected many politicians’ belief that they would be shielded from public anger, either by economic growth or by pliant institutions. In Mexico, for example, the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party controlled the courts and the media, shielding the country’s presidents from career-ending scandals.
Brazilian democracy is at its most vulnerable point since the return of civilian rule three decades ago.
Only in Brazil has corruption toppled one government after another. Some analysts blame Brazil’s continental size and its strong regional power centers, which have produced a large number of political parties—at one point, Rousseff’s coalition in Congress included more than 20. The parties themselves have weak ideological identities and little power to enforce loyalty among their members, which often compels presidents to bargain with legislators individually to get laws passed. This, in turn, creates strong incentives for politicians to resort to bribery to help forge alliances.
Other scholars argue that Brazil is no more crooked than its regional peers, pointing to surveys such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks Brazil as less corrupt than Argentina and Mexico. Brazilian corruption is simply more likely to be detected, they claim. Brazil has an especially vigorous free press, an independent and well-resourced judicial branch, and a large and historically marginalized working class that, amid levels of inequality that are high even by Latin American standards, is almost always ready to turn on its leaders at the drop of a hat.
Whatever the truth, in recent decades, Brazil’s systemic corruption has become more unsustainable. The country’s 1988 constitution granted extraordinary autonomy to Brazilian prosecutors, leaving them free to investigate and imprison members of the business and political elite with little fear of reversal or retribution. As in other parts of the world, technological changes, including the rise of Facebook and Twitter, have made it easier for watchdogs to collect evidence, publish allegations, and mobilize anticorruption demonstrations. And the economic boom Brazil enjoyed in the first decade of this century, fueled in part by Chinese demand for its commodities, created a new, educated middle class that demands better governance from its leaders. A decade ago, unemployment and hunger ranked at the top of most voters’ concerns; today, corruption does, especially among voters under 40.
These factors have come to a head in the Car Wash scandal. In 2013, Brazilian police discovered an illegal money-transfer business hidden behind a gas station. In exchange for a plea bargain, one of the money launderers they arrested, a man named Alberto Youssef, told investigators about his role in a scheme that had funneled billions of dollars from Petrobras and other corporate giants to Brazilian politicians and their associates. Since then, a team of prosecutors has built evidence based on additional plea bargains, as well as an extensive web of domestic and international bank records. Many of Brazil’s most famous tycoons have been jailed, including the oil magnate Eike Batista, the seventh-richest person in the world in 2012, according to Forbes magazine. The prosecutors, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s, come from Brazil’s first generation to know nothing but democracy in their adult lives and value the rule of law over deference to authority.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s old political establishment has consistently underestimated both the tenacity of the prosecutors and the support they enjoy from the Brazilian public. On taking office, the 76-year-old Temer could have appointed aides who were untainted by the Car Wash scandal. Instead, he assembled an all-male, all-white cabinet (despite the fact that more than 50 percent of Brazilians define themselves as black or mixed race) that included numerous politicians already under investigation for corruption. The idea, it seems, was that by assembling an all-star team of experienced, if unpopular, politicians, Temer would be able to pass legislation, including a reform of Brazil’s overly generous pension system, that would restore investors’ confidence. Once economic growth returned, Temer and his aides believed, public anger over corruption would recede.
Perhaps predictably, this approach has backfired. Amid a relentless torrent of new allegations stemming from the Petrobras case and other investigations, five more ministers from Temer’s cabinet, in addition to Silveira, have resigned or otherwise lost their jobs. In December, large street demonstrations broke out after Brazilian politicians gutted an anticorruption bill. The political instability has hampered Temer’s ability to execute his legislative agenda and has scared off many domestic and foreign investors, and most economists now expect Brazil’s economy to barely grow in 2017. The only public figure in Brazil whose approval rating consistently stands above 50 percent is Sérgio Moro, the 44-year-old judge overseeing Operation Car Wash.
Only in Brazil has corruption toppled one government after another.
With Temer’s term set to end in December 2018, it is probably too late for him to relaunch his government in a more transparent mold. But his successor will have a golden opportunity to show that he or she has learned the lessons of Operation Car Wash. Only by prioritizing the fight against systemic corruption and making transparency a guiding principle of government policy can Brazil’s politicians regain the support of their constituents, inspire confidence among investors, and end the country’s crippling economic crisis. This strategy—call it “radical transparency”—holds the country’s best hope for recovery.
Radical transparency must start at the very top, and it requires deep reforms as well as symbolic measures aimed at regaining the public’s trust. For starters, Brazil’s next president should name a cabinet that is completely untouched by the scandals of recent years. To reinforce his or her commitment to bringing new figures into national politics, the president should reserve half of all cabinet positions for women and a smaller quota for people under the age of 40, following the lead of Colombia, which introduced this very policy in the early years of this century. The government should also publish statements listing each minister’s assets and recent income on the presidency’s official website.
But to significantly reduce corruption, Brazilian lawmakers must make deeper political reforms. The most obvious is to abolish Brazil’s so-called privileged standing, a law under which only the Supreme Court can judge senior government officials, including the president, cabinet ministers, and members of Congress, for alleged crimes. This provision, which has its origins in nineteenth-century Portuguese colonial rule, was designed to shield high-level public servants from politicized verdicts by lower courts. But given that the Supreme Court deals with more than 100,000 cases a year, trials of politicians usually drag on for several years—if they occur at all. The result is near impunity for the estimated 22,000 people who currently enjoy some version of this privilege, which helps explain why far more executives than politicians have been imprisoned so far in the Car Wash scandal. Withdrawing it, which would require Congress to amend the constitution, would dramatically improve the odds of corrupt politicians going to jail without inordinate delays.
Brazil’s next president could complement this change by steering greater resources toward the Federal Police; the Ministry of Transparency, Supervision, and Controls; the Superior Electoral Court; and other bodies that investigate and prosecute graft and fraud. Brazil already has some of the region’s most stringent anticorruption legislation, including a 2011 freedom-of-information law, a 2013 law governing private-sector conduct, and a 2016 law mandating greater financial transparency at state-run companies such as Petrobras. But as the wry Brazilian expression goes, Algumas leis não pegam (Some laws don’t quite catch on), usually because the government fails to provide the resources to enforce them. According to their employees’ union, for instance, the Federal Police are so strapped for cash that they have only one agent for every 200 cases; the union has asked that the size of the force be doubled to keep up with demand. Other countries shaken by Operation Car Wash—the investigation has followed the money beyond Brazil’s borders into Colombia and Peru—have already taken similar steps: in February, Peru’s president announced that he would triple funding for anticorruption prosecutors.
If the government wishes to crack down on the kind of corruption uncovered at Petrobras, it should focus on places where the private and public sectors intersect. That means publishing all the terms, bids, and results for procurement and infrastructure projects and instituting harsher fines for companies when the projects go overtime or over budget. One proposal that Congress is considering would oblige government entities, including state-run companies, to dedicate at least ten percent of their advertising budgets to educating the public about the dangers of corruption and publicizing outlets for whistleblowers. This is a good idea, and the government should also work with Congress to draw up a new framework for campaign finance, following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to abolish corporate donations altogether until a more transparent system could be created.
Finally, the next government should work with Congress to pass legislation that would slash the number of political parties, and with it the opportunities for corruption. As of December 2016, 28 parties were represented in Brazil’s Congress, and applications were pending with electoral authorities to create an additional 52 parties. Introducing a minimum threshold of votes to enter Congress could reduce the number of major parties to, say, eight or ten, without unduly restricting political diversity.
Many Brazilian politicians dismiss these proposals as unworkable in the current political climate. They insist that the true source of public discontent is not corruption but the economy, which has contracted by almost ten percent on a per capita basis since 2014. The government should therefore save its political capital, the argument goes, for passing legislation that will boost job creation, simplify its notoriously Byzantine tax code, and better integrate Brazil—the most closed major economy in Latin America—with the rest of the world.
There is more support now for sweeping political change than at any point in a generation.
It’s true that recapturing the dynamism that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty is critical. But the government would be reckless to dismiss the public’s outrage over corruption. In a 2016 survey, only 32 percent of Brazilians polled agreed that democracy is always the best form of government—a 22-percentage-point plunge from the previous year. If popular dissatisfaction with the political class remains so high, Brazilian democracy will face an existential threat. The risk is not a military coup; that era in Brazil ended with the Cold War. Instead, the public could be seduced by an authoritarian civilian leader who pushes Congress aside and restricts democratic freedoms. Alternatively, the country could remain trapped in a cycle in which unpopular politicians persistently resist transparency, even as new scandals continue to erupt—a recipe for long-term stagnation.
To be sure, an anticorruption drive would carry some risks. Presidents who pledge to stamp out corruption often resort to demagoguery and try to drive investigations themselves instead of empowering independent judicial institutions. Authorities must ensure that law enforcement agencies spend any additional funds effectively. After all, Brazil already spends more than its regional peers on the judicial sector, but too much of the money goes toward lavish salaries and perks for judges, even as police complain they can’t afford to fill their cars with gas. Finally, efforts to increase transparency often end in disappointment. Governments should thus manage public expectations; the goal is to significantly reduce corruption, not eliminate it altogether.
Nonetheless, Brazil’s leaders have an extraordinary opportunity. There is more support now for sweeping political change than at any point in a generation. Polls show that Brazilians are convinced that corruption caused the worst crisis of their lifetimes. In a nationwide survey at the end of 2016, 96 percent of respondents said they wanted Operation Car Wash to continue “no matter the cost”; 70 percent said they felt confident that, thanks to the investigation, corruption would decline in the future. Over the past 35 years, Brazil has defeated authoritarianism, hyperinflation, and hunger. Adding systemic corruption to that list would represent a historic accomplishment.
In the final months before Rousseff’s impeachment, as the Car Wash scandal erupted and the economy collapsed, she commissioned secret internal polls to gauge her political standing. Rousseff was surprised to learn that the most popular figure in Brazil was not her or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), her much-loved predecessor. It was Pope Francis, whose example of austerity and integrity resonated at a time of enormous moral crisis, and who, in 2015, had called on the Vatican to operate with “absolute transparency.” Brazil’s next leader should take note.