EDITORIAL - You can criticize the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, but you can’t accuse her of lack of integrity. As a young revolutionary she was tortured by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, and came out of prison unscathed. When democracy was reestablished, she started a long political career. Her tactics may have changed along the way - hello Real Politik - but not her missionary fervor.
Dilma has forged a well-deserved reputation as an incorruptible. Only a couple months after taking office as president of Brazil, she fired six ministers after it was revealed that they were involved in ‘trafficking of favors.’ That is why the much-talked-about ‘trial of the century,’ for the biggest corruption scandal in the past 20 years in Brazil, might dirty the reputation of the much-loved Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, the popular former president who chose Dilma as his successor, but will not so much as touch her.
The scandal, called the mensalão, which means ‘large monthly payment,’ was uncovered for the first time in 2005, when Lula was president. The case was sent to the Supreme Court in 2007, but the judges only recently starting looking at the case. There are 38 co-defendants, all of them leaders in Dilma and Lula’s political party, the Workers’ Party (PT). The list starts with José Dirceu, the former Chief of Staff for Lula. All of the defendants are charged with corruption, illegal collusion, money laundering and embezzlement.
It is not a minor crime. Shortly after Lula came to power in 2002, the PT started to divert money from the publicity budgets and pension funds of state-owned companies and used it to make monthly payments to elected deputies and senators as a way to buy their support for legislative projects.
In some Latin American countries, a scandal of this size would have toppled the government. But not in Brazil. There were some voices calling for Lula’s impeachment, but the president asked for forgiveness for his party’s actions, and appointed an untouchable female activist to be his Chief of Staff - guess who - and was reelected in 2006 with a wide margin.
Having a reputation for corruption is not an obstacle for a political career in Brazil. President Fernando Collor de Mello, for example, was impeached and removed from office for corruption in 1992. He recently returned to politics and was elected senator. The former governor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf, is pending trial for theft related to a kickback scheme during his time as governor. He was recently elected to the parliament. And Lula himself, who in all likelihood knew about the mensalão, was elected a year after the scandal broke and left office after his second term with extremely high approval ratings.
Maybe that’s why Dilma’s Robespierrian zeal has seemed strange to some observers.
The trial will hurt her party, and she still has the upcoming October municipal elections in front of her, when 550 municipal-level posts will be up for election. Is it convenient for Dilma to seem so clean at the expense of her party and of Lula? Perhaps so. Lula was president in the years that Brazil experienced the highest economic growth in its history. Under his presidency, 35 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty. In those circumstances, it is much easier to forgive him if he turned a blind eye to corruption, especially in a country that takes for granted that politicians are corrupt.
Dilma’s Brazil, on the other hand, is not growing like it did before. The country grew only 2.5 percent last year, and the first trimester of this year grew at a rate of only 0.8 percent. Dilma could be thinking about her own reelection already, and having fired the six corrupt ministers at the beginning of her presidency made her popularity surge to 77 percent.
It is possible that Dilma’s revolutionary integrity is a political maneuver on which she is betting her own future. Or maybe she really has Robespierre’s revolutionary zeal. Whatever the case, her zeal against corruption is good for Brazil. And for all of Latin America.