Brazil Impeachment!

September 25, 2007

Undone by charges of corruption and influence peddling, Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Melo has been impeached and faces trial by the Brazilian Senate. The removal of a Brazilian president in a constitutional process rather than by military coup is a noteworthy event--one which may do a great deal for the credibility of law in a country where laws have been applied with considerable discretion. But the meaning of Collor's impeachment, like the Senate verdict, is still out.

To get at what the Collorgate scandal might--and might not--mean, one must tackle three formidable puzzles. First, corruption and influence peddling in Brazil are nothing new; why should a president suddenly stand to lose his mandate because of corruption? Second, in a period characterized by profound popular demobilization, what sparked the massive street demonstrations all over the country calling for Collor's impeachment? And third, in a political system where sitting presidents can normally co-opt enough congressional support at critical moments to survive such crises, why was Collor unable to do so?

But first, the story. In May, 1992 the president's brother Pedro accused Collor and his old crony Paulo César Farias of profiting from elaborate influence-peddling schemes. The result was a congressional investigation, the Comissão Parlementar de Inquérito (CPI), whose report at the end of August documented corrupt activities by P.C. Farias and several others. The investigation dug up evidence that money from bank accounts controlled by Farias had been deposited into bank accounts belonging to members of Collor's family, and had been used to pay for renovations to the house and garden of Collor's home in Brasília. The CPI was not a judicial process, but the material it collected subsidized future court proceedings. Subsequently, the Brazilian bar and press associations brought a motion before Congress calling for Collor's impeachment. The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority in the Chamber of Deputies at the beginning of October. The case against the president has gone to the Senate, where a trial must be conducted within 180 days. In the meantime, Collor stepped down, his Cabinet resigned, and Vice President Itamar Franco formed a new government.

What's Wrong With Corruption?

The first puzzle is why and to what extent corruption is suddenly being taken seriously. Collor ran for president in 1989 on an anti-corruption platform. It was an extremely paradoxical campaign. With considerable help from Brazil's most powerful television network, TV Globo, he built an image of himself as a young, energetic anti-establishment politician - in spite of his impeccable establishment credentials. Son of a former senator, Collor comes from one of the most powerful political families of the northeastern state of Alagoas. He began his political career as mayor of Maceió as an appointee of the military government, and progressed through the Chamber of Deputies and the state governorship. While governor, he got a lot of media coverage for firing a group of state employees who collected paychecks without ever showing up for work. This incident was the basis on which he built his anti-corruption reputation. Collor beat Workers Party candidate Luís Inácio Lula da Silva in a run-off election by six percentage points, becoming the first directly elected president of Brazil since 1960.

When he got to Brasília, he insisted that he was not going to make political deals with politicians, but would get his support directly from the people. During his first year in office, he made little effort to win congressional support, in spite of the fact that the party to which he belongs has minimal representation in Congress. He also surrounded himself with many old cronies from Alagoas, including some of those who have figured most prominently in the current scandal. So part of the answer to why corruption has become an issue lies simply in the radical disjunction between Collor's anti-corruption campaign platform and the actual practice of those in government.

A second part of the answer lies in the scale of the corruption, the fact that it was traceable, and the degree to which "kickback inflation" appears to have alienated Brazilian businessmen. The state of Alagoas is famous even in the context of Brazil's notoriously corrupt Northeast for the degree of impunity that politicians have enjoyed. It may simply have never occurred to the Alagoans who went to Brasília that they might be caught out. One of the remarkable aspects of the whole story has been the size of the paper trail. In a country where the image of corruption is a black suitcase full of cash, Farias' associates wrote checks, siphoning off millions of dollars at a time when most of the population was feeling the impact of a decade-long and extraordinarily deep recession.

The CPI was not initially expected to come up with very much--after all, there have been countless such commissions. But there were surprises: witnesses who came forward with information that led to the paper trail of checks and phoney bank accounts, bank employees who resisted pressures to stall investigations of bank records, and members of Congress who became unexpectedly committed to the investigation. As more and more information became public, the press helped to fuel public outrage. It's important to note that the president was not directly and personally implicated in any of the transfers uncovered, though members of his family and household were. (Perhaps he was just too busy to notice the multi-million dollar renovation of the house and grounds where he was living!) But however much evidence was emerging, prior to mid-August it still looked unlikely to endanger the president himself.

Collor's Color War

The answer to the second puzzle--where the extraordinary levels of mass mobilization came from--is that Collor himself called them into being. Until that point, the prospects for his impeachment were very low, and no compelling new information transformed the body of evidence already available. In the middle of August, in a speech to taxi drivers in Brasília, Collor appealed to the "silent majority," who he claimed still supported him, to come out onto the streets of Brazil on Sunday, August 16, wearing green and yellow, the colors of the Brazilian flag. In response, opponents suggested that Brazilians instead take to the streets that day wearing black, the color of mourning. The idea seems to have spread primarily by word of mouth. On that Sunday, thousands of people poured into the streets wearing black; very few wore green and yellow.

Thus began the war of the colors. A series of demonstrations built to crowds of several hundred thousand in large cities, and sizeable ones in smaller cities as well. Such a wave of opposition had not been seen since the unsuccessful mobilizations for direct presidential elections in 1984. The memory of the diretas já demonstrations is an important point of reference in this story. The diretas movement was perhaps the last gasp of a relatively united opposition movement to the military regime--the last moment in which partisan distinctions were subsumed under at least an appearance of mass consensus, and for a short time there was a real and intoxicating sense of national purpose. But however broad its support--and it was broad indeed--the movement for direct elections lost.

Since then, it has been hard work building democratic institutions in the context of ever deeper economic crisis and weak leadership at the national level (particularly under José Sarney, Collor's predecessor). This is not to say that there haven't been moments of mobilization--in response to the Cruzado plan in 1986, for example, and around the presidential elections in 1989. But it's been a decade in which expectations were raised to irrational heights, only to be dashed over and over again. The high level of emotions in the movement to oust Collor has to be understood against this backdrop of repeatedly inflated expectations and repeated failure.

A striking element in these demonstrations was the number of young people involved in them--college and especially high school students, normally characterized as apolitical and interested only in going to shopping malls. Their interest was sparked by the broadcast of a television program--a chance confluence of events which reminds us of the role of coincidence in political history. In late July and early August, TV Globo--one of the pillars of Collor's support--ran a ver, a novel about the student movements of 1968 in Brazil and the beginnings of some of the guerrilla organizations that tried, with notable lack of success, to oppose the military dictatorship. The series had a staggering impact on young people who had never heard the story of the student demonstrations of those years and the kind of violence with which they were put down. More than any speech that a politician could have given, the mini-series appears to have awakened in literally thousands of young people a notion that they have a role to play in politics. Moribund student unions were suddenly flooded with new members. Students gave the August demonstrations a special kind of tone--mixing protest with a celebration of public presence, complete with huge puppets of Collor and P.C. Farias, face paint, and rap music. Gradually, the colors of the demonstrations changed, as the opposition to Collor reappropriated the colors of the flag. By late August the demonstrators were wearing green and yellow.

The size of the demonstrations influenced wavering politicians. Municipal elections were only a month away, and close identification with Collor began to look like political suicide. Politicians who themselves have a reputation for corruption were scrambling to condemn Collor. Paulo Maluf, president of the conservative PDS party and candidate for mayor of São Paulo, is a particularly notorious example. Despite the abundance of stories of corrupt dealings in his governorship of São Paulo (1978-82) and his 1984 presidential campaign, Maluf decided in mid-August to support impeachment despite his history of close personal links with Collor (he was best man at the president's wedding).

"No Sale"

Collor's initial strategy for securing support was to open up the public coffers to fund programs that would benefit political allies. Though this approach had worked well in the past, it didn't work this time around. One reason was the unwillingness of Finance Minister Marcílio Marques Moreira to risk Brazil's shaky financial position on a questionable effort to insure the president's survival. In the past, the easy solution would have been to fire the finance minister. But in this case, Brazil's international credibility with creditor countries and international banks depended heavily on the confidence they had in the current minister. Although Collor managed to get around Marques Moreira's resistance, there may simply not have been much money to spread around. Finally, the size of the anti-Collor demonstrations appeared to convince many politicians that the president was a lost cause. By late August some of the most important pillars of support for his government began to topple.

The rosiest interpretation of this course of events would be that a truly revolutionary assertion is emerging in Brazil—that the rule of law is something worth fighting for, and that it should apply equally to the powerful and the powerless. There are elements of this in Collorgate, and one can only hope that they persist in its aftermath. But it's important to remember that many of the politicians in the leadership of the coalition to impeach Collor themselves have significant reputations for corruption—Orestes Quercia, for example, the former São Paulo governor and PMDB party leader who aspires to the presidency. Collor's efforts to turn accusations of corruption against his accusers were a complete failure, so his ouster can't be interpreted just as an anti-corruption movement. And before one concludes that the result of this process will be equal treatment before the law, the juxtaposition of the October prison massacre in São Paulo, in which over a hundred prisoners died, with the likely penalties if P.C. Farias & Co. are convicted should serve as a sobering reminder of how things really are.

This is not to say that Collorgate was not about corruption or about equal treatment. But more than these, I think it was about repeatedly raised expecta-tions and about repeated failure and disappointment. Collor presented him-self as the proverbial savior, the man on a white horse, who would clean out the corrupt politicians and speak for the marginalized poor. He did none of those things, and worse still, he alienated the middle class, whose standard of living has fallen precipitously over the last few years, by confiscating their savings accounts for 18 months without bring-ing down inflation. The finance minis-ter who presided over that operation left the government after a scandalous affair with the married justice minister, and worse still, wrote an embarrassingly sentimental book recounting how they passed love letters back and forth in cabinet meetings. Not only was the government incompetent, it lacked dig-nity, and people cared.

The ministerial changes in Collor’s second year showed some signs of turning this image around, when the corruption scandal broke. The charges, in turn, might not have amounted to much, had not Collor himself called the people out into the streets, which in turn mobilized the party leaderships. What Collor did, essentially, was to provide an opportunity and a set of symbols for people to express and focus their extraordinarily diffuse frustration with the status quo. Collor allowed them to become, once again, "the opposition," and to recapture an image of national unity and purpose that had been lost for close to a decade. But because the opposition is so diffuse and diverse (as were its predecessors in the past), it has no project of its own.

So it's hard to predict exactly what the long-term impact of this crisis will be, or even if it will have a long-term impact. Through Collorgate, the Brazilian Congress--and large portions of the population--became active players in a game where for too long both had been sitting on the sidelines. Dynamic moments like this sometimes provide opportunities for change, but they do not themselves signify change unless they become deeply embedded in new institutional practices. Some limited reforms are almost certain to take place, such as the outlawing of bank accounts in false names. But it remains to be seen whether or not Brazilians will seize the rare opportunity to look beyond this particular drama towards more sweeping reform.


Margaret E. Keck teaches political science at Yale University. She is the author of The Workers' Party and Democratization in Brazil (Yale University Press, 1992).

Tags: Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello, impeachment, corruption, equality

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