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Corruption Case Makes Waves in Brazil

The giant corruption trial in Brazil is capturing the nation’s attention as it enters its fourth straight month. The case centers around a vote-buying scheme in which government officials under the previous administration payed off members of opposition parties in exchange for votes. While many government officials have already been convicted in what has become known as the mensalão (large monthly payment) case, the sentencing period has just begun.

Brazilians are particularly in awe of this trial because their politicians are famous for getting away with murder, literally, with little or no repercussions  The trials are also being televised for the first time in Brazilian history, and law professors have been supplying live commentary, further raising the cases’ profile. The reaction thus far has been very positive: Many Brazilians see the case as a momentous sign that their government is finally moving in the right direction. The FT reports:

“Brazil is taking this seriously because they see it as part of their role as an emerging power,” said Alejandro Salas, regional director for the Americas at the anti-sleaze organisation Transparency International, which ranks Brazil at 3.8 out of 10 in its corruption perceptions index (10 being regarded as “very clean”). This compares with fellow members of the big Bric emerging markets: Russia at 2.4, India at 3.1 and China at 3.6.

“They will differentiate themselves from the other emerging economies by doing this – by improving governance,” says Mr Salas.

It is particularly heartening that many Brazilians now see a link between the fight against corruption and the country’s hopes of a broader global profile.

However, it’s easier to have a trial and send some bad guys to jail than it is to build stable and effective governance over the long term. Italy, for example, went through a spectacular series of trials in the 1990s. The mani pulite (clean hands) affair spread across the country like wildfire as politicians scrambled to cut deals or maneuver to save themselves from allegations of corruption. But while many were arrested, and some even committed suicide because of the scandals, the end result was the ascendance of Silvio Berlusconi. Corruption quickly took hold once again.

Political corruption on this scale can’t be understood as the simple consequence of human greed, and it will take more than some high profile convictions to change the way powerful Brazilians exercise political power. What we liberal moderns despise as corruption in part reflects the survival of feudal relations and folkways in the contemporary world. The patron gives the client protection and help; the client owes the patron service and loyalty. In countries with long histories of weak or despotic government, corruption can look like common sense or an act of resistance. Cheating the foreign tax collector or the illegitimate ruler doesn’t feel wrong, and neither does it feel wrong to put your own family first.

The transition from a semi-feudal, patron-client type of state to something more modern and efficient usually takes a lot of time. Brazil will not transform overnight into a squeaky clean, Scandinavian country. But at least with these trials, it is making an effort. In the end, if enough Brazilians come to see political corruption as deeply wrong, a kind of treason against the country and a conscienceless oppression of the poor, then things will change.

If not, prosecutors will investigate and judges will sentence, but away from the glare of the floodlights, business as usual will go on.

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