Brazil: Scandals Hinder Lula’s Administration

Source: Maryknoll News Notes
by David Kane
July 15, 2005

The Brazilian government has been racked by a series of corruption scandals that many social movements--church groups; NGOs; unions; farmers, Afro-Brazilians, womens' and students' organizations--worry may result in conservative parties increasing their power within the coalition that supports the president’s Workers’ Party (PT). President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula), a founding member of the PT, was elected in 2002 after losing three previous elections for the same position. In order to gain political support necessary for the election, the PT formed alliances with conservative parties, which has made it difficult to maintain coalition of forces within the government.

In its first two and a half years in power, the Lula government has implemented a mixture of progressive and conservative policies. On the international front, it has maintained a more independent posture in relation to free trade accords like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), while working to increase South-South relationships through stronger ties with African, Asian and other Latin American countries. Internally, however, it has passed a series of structural (neoliberal) reforms that the PT historically had fought against, such as the partial privatization of social security and bankruptcy reform, and is working for other unpopular reforms of education, workers’ rights and unions. This dichotomy of actions represents the internal struggles taking place within the government between the coalition forces. Social movements are concerned that, as a result of these recent scandals, the conservative forces will increase their force within the government.

The first scandal, which came to light in 2003, involved a trusted assistant to Jose Dirceu, the president’s chief of staff, who extorted money from a clandestine lottery director for political campaigns for members of the PT and allied parties. The government was able to avoid a Congressional investigation of the case, but the PT’s image as an ethical and honest party was tarnished, and Dirceu’s reputation was damaged.

A second scandal began earlier this year when a video on national television showed an executive of the postal system, Mauricio Marinho, receiving money from a private company in exchange for contracts with the postal service. During the video, Marinho detailed a bribery scheme, supposedly orchestrated by Roberto Jefferson, president of the PTB, an allied party of the Lula government, which involved other state-run companies. In a television interview about the accusations, Jefferson, in an attempt to deflect attention from his involvement, introduced a new scandal saying that the PT, since the beginning of its time in office, has been paying close to $12,500 per month to as many as 101 representatives and senators from two allied parties, the Progressive Party (PP) and Liberal Party (PL), for them to vote in favor of PT initiatives.

The resulting scandal has dominated the political agenda. No one has strongly denied the accusations and many politicians and aides have commented that they had heard about the illegal payments, but have no proof. Congress already has begun an investigation of the postal scandal and will start an investigative panel of the paying off of legislators.

The first victim of the crisis was Jose Dirceu, Lula’s chief of staff and longtime personal friend, who left his position to return to his position as representative of the state of Sao Paulo to which he was elected in 2002. Dirceu was a strong center-left voice within the schizophrenic Cabinet. Some, like Minister of the Environment Marina Silva, represent the PT’s historical progressive past, while others such as Roberto Rodrigues (Agriculture), Luiz Furlan (Development, Industry and External Commerce) and Antonio Palocci (Economic Policy) favor strong neoliberal policies. The president of the Central Bank is Henrique Meirelles, a former president of the Bank of Boston, Brazil’s largest private creditor. With conservatives in such key positions, the loss of Dirceu was especially worrisome to social movements.

While the scandals have lowered Brazilians’ confidence in the Lula government in opinion polls, the percentage of people rating the government as good or great has fallen from 41 percent to 35 percent since the beginning of the year--many believe that Lula himself may have been unaware of the payments being made to the legislators. When he learned about the latest scandal, aides report that he cried and ordered that the payments to legislators be stopped. Lula continues to be seen positively by the majority of the Brazilian people and as a hope for fundamental change by the social movements. In response to the scandal, over 50 movements released a “Letter to the Brazilian People