Monday, 18 November 2013

Brazil jailings amaze cynics

FORTALEZA, Brazil – Last week I joined Brazilians by tuning in to a remarkable spectacle: top politicians convicted of corruption getting carted off to jail. That’s not something that happens very often in Brazil. No, wait; that NEVER happens in Brazil. But it did.

About eight years ago, a scheme came to light by which Workers Party (PT) officials passed a juicy monthly emolument (known as a mensalão) to members of the Brazilian congress in exchange for support on key votes. The PT, now in power for a dozen years, is the country’s largest left-wing party and emerged from a decades-long alliance between intellectuals, progressive Catholics and a strong labor movement. Its charismatic two-term president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula” for short), remains enormously popular. Lula was never accused of complicity in the mensalão scheme although it’s also pretty hard to believe that he knew nothing about what was going on under his nose. In any case, his popularity did not stop the glacially slow wheels of justice from turning on his top aides.

Legal maneuvering to keep the party’s former president, José Genoino, and Lula’s one-time chief of staff, José Dirceu [pictured], out of the clink fell apart when the supreme court told them they had to start serving their sentences. This was shocking in a country where the rich and powerful usually get away with murder. (Literally: one parliamentarian famously continued to serve after being convicted in a homicide case.) Television provided live coverage of the event as cars pulled in to prisons in different states.

It’s hard to say what the precedent-shattering event means. Most Brazilians I met are far too cynical and resigned to the rampant corruption they live with to believe anything has really changed. But it was encouraging to see even the slightest breach in the grotesque two-tiered system of rich/poor justice even while the papers were full of the next big scandal that, in cash terms, far outstrips the mensalão.

It’s not as if Brazilians are inherently less honest than anyone else. I bought a hammock from a downtown shop in Fortaleza, and due to some confusion in the jam-packed place, I ended up paying 75 reales instead of the discounted 65 a clerk had offered me. As I carried the package through the crowded square, a store employee shouted after me and came running with a 10-real bill. ‘You forgot your change, sir’, she said.

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