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Success Aside, Brazilians Keep After Politicians

By Karla BrunerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 1994



SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

SINCE a congressional investigative committee recommended the impeachment of 18 members of Brazil's Congress in January for their alleged involvement in a federal budget corruption scheme, the people have been cautiously optimistic.

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Optimistic because the congressional investigation proves the anticorruption movement that swelled in September 1992 with the call for the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello has continued. Cautious because the impeachment proceedings are dragging.

But no matter how long it takes for Brazil to clean up its politics, Brazilian officials and political scientists agree that it is no longer business as usual for government in this country. ``The political customs in Brazil have changed, and there's no turning back,'' says Paulo Moreira Leite, executive political editor of the Brazilian newsmagazine Veja.

Brazil's popular movement against corruption is part of a growing trend throughout Latin America, in which the people, tired of false promises and austerity programs, have lashed out at the graft that has gripped their governments for decades.

Hopes were high in 1990 when Mr. Collor became Brazil's first democratically elected president in 25 years. Revelations of extensive influence-peddling in his administration inspired protests that led to Collor's downfall and the congressional investigation into a scheme to divert millions of dollars from the federal budget.

``Without the peoples' movements we wouldn't have the results we have today,'' says Carlos Alberto Grana, general secretary of Brazil's largest labor union.

Now that the anticorruption movement has toppled a president, it is likely to shape the outcome of Brazil's presidential and congressional elections this fall.

Citizens will now watch their city and state governments closely, checking that federal funds reach the projects for which they have been earmarked and do not slip into politicians' pockets or nonexistent philanthropic entities, says Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, who represents the Worker's Party and is a member of the congressional investigative team.

``Ethics will be a strong point among the candidates,'' he says. ``The people are demanding transparency and honesty from those who govern them.''

But it is not enough for voters to be more demanding with candidates in this year's elections. Sao Paulo political scientist Bolivar Lamounier says Brazil's voting system must be reformed.

``In the American system a person with a background like Federal Deputy Joao Alves [accused of diverting federal funds for kickbacks] would never be allowed by a party to be a district candidate. It would be suicide. They'd certainly lose a seat in Congress,'' Mr. Lamounier says. In Brazil, candidates run statewide, not by district, so they do not have to garner votes from any one segment of the population, to which they would be accountable.

If Collor had not had his political rights taken away for the next eight years he would have had an easy run at a seat in Congress under the current system, Lamounier adds.

Renato Janine Ribeiro, a philosophy professor at the University of Sao Paulo, says Brazil's corruption dates back to its colonial era (1500-1822). It was then that rich landowners developed a system of ``exchange of favors.'' Poor peasants were given rough, fallow plots of land to farm. In exchange, landowners felt it was their right to ask the poor farmer to hunt for him or vote for him during elections.

Corruption at the executive and legislative levels has hampered attempts at reforming Brazilian governance, a process called the constitutional review.

Francisco Weffort, a political science professor at Sao Paulo University and author of ``What Democracy?'' a survey of Latin American democracies, believes that Congress has overlooked some vital proposals for constitutional review. These include ending political immunity for members of Congress, prohibiting candidates from changing political parties (in exchange for political favors), and establishing voting by district (to keep unknown candidates from winning elections by receiving votes from across an extensive area).

Though Congress has not been able to maintain a quorum long enough to vote on all constitutional-review proposals, Professor Weffort notes, the lower house did find time to approve a 35 percent salary increase for Congress members. This will add $2.1 billion a year to government spending and jeopardize the Cabinet's recent economic plan.

``It's demoralizing. Congressmen learned something with the anticorruption movement, but it's not enough,'' Weffort says. ``They still think of themselves as first-class citizens and the masses as second-class citizens.''

But Weffort does note two positive reforms that Congress recently passed. One regulates campaign donations from companies. The other, an attempt to prevent the rise of bogus new parties, mandates that no party may participate in elections unless it already holds seats in Congress.

Under these rules, ``there's a chance that the candidates won't exchange favors'' for money, Weffort says.