In Brazil, political graft is the hottest reality TV on the air

As reality shows go, there are none as real as the one playing out on Brazilian TV right now.

Live from Congress! Hear of high-ranking officials trying to board planes with $100,000 stuffed in their underwear. See politicians refusing to answer investigators for fear of incriminating themselves. Watch their wives reduced to tears. Secretaries revealing their bosses' dirty secrets. Their opponents insulting them with accusations of corruption and lies. And an eager public lapping up every word while watching the bad guys fall and the good guys struggle to survive.

The dramatic circumstances confronting Luíz Inacio Lula da Silva's presidency have captivated Brazil. Ever since allegations surfaced claiming Mr. da Silva's Worker's Party (PT) bought votes in Congress, the country has been glued to TV sets, following an investigation that has united the country in outrage and amusement.

The scandal is Brazil's biggest political story since President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992. It highlights the challenge faced by Latin leaders, even ones who come to office pledg- ing to clean house, to break the grip of corruption on a continent where graft, embezzlement, and theft bleed already weak economies of billions of dollars each year.

"I think what this indicates is how deep-rooted corruption has become and how difficult it is to address," says Harley Shaiken, the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "With Lula it is even more disturbing given his promise and track record."

High hopes for Lula

Latin Americans have elected several left-of-center presidents over the past few years, but Lula, as da Silva is known here, was the one most expected to tackle the perennial problems. The former union leader was renowned as a man of integrity, and he won a landslide victory in 2002 largely because of promises to fight corruption and close the yawning gap between Brazil's rich and poor.

Now, however, he, like past and present leaders in Mexico, Peru, and Central America, is being accused of the same dirty tricks he vowed to eradicate.

The Brazil scandal has dominated the news here since the first week of June when one of Lula's allies told a Brazilian newspaper that the PT paid deputies 30,000 reais (around $12,500) a month to vote for government bills in Congress.

Deputy Roberto Jefferson, the president of the small Brazilian Labor Party, one of the many Brazilian political parties whose affiliation is negotiable, said deputies from at least two of the minor parties in Lula's seven-party coalition were paid the monthly fee by the PT's treasurer.

Although the PT denied the payments, a congressional investigation into the charges has thrown up enough evidence to the contrary. In addition, it seems to produce new evidence of malfeasance every day and with it a mountain of dirt that threatens to bury the government.

Testimony from witnesses and seized files have shown how the government gave contracts to a public-relations executive who used them as collateral in seeking bank loans. The executive then lent the money back to the PT, who illegally used it to fund electoral campaigns.

On top of that, the PT is accused of using state-run companies as collateral for loans to itself, and then giving the money to deputies. Evidence suggests dozens of deputies, or their aides, wives or families - including some from the PT - withdrew huge wads of cash from banks across Brasilia.

Mr. Jefferson gave evidence sporting a black eye.

The wife of one of the scandal's main protagonists was visibly upset at having to give evidence that could incriminate her husband. His secretary, meanwhile, put on such an assured performance in front of the cameras that she is reported to have been approached by Playboy to pose nude. The ex-wife of one deputy provoked laughs as she went all out to embarrass her former spouse, while the appearance of the PT's treasurer - with tearful denials and clumsy refusals to incriminate his party colleagues - was so outrageous that normally disciplined lawmakers screamed at him with calls of "liar" and "disgrace."

Suddenly, politics is interesting again.

"I went in to the baker's the other day to get a coffee, and everyone was watching the coverage live on television," says Mario Sergio Conti, a political columnist and author of a bestselling book on former President Collor's impeachment. "It's very confusing, but people are following it because it is on the TV and the radio all the time. There are elements of the reality show about it. It's like theater, or voyeurism ... watching them give statements and asking who's going down and who's going to save their skin."

The man many people would like to see take the stand is Lula, but the president has not personally been accused of wrongdoing and he is not expected to give testimony. His personal support remains stable, but the PT's treasurer, president, and secretary-general have all resigned, as well as Lula's chief of staff; Lula's links with them have shaken his and his government's credibility. One recent poll in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper showed the number of people who believe his government is corrupt more than doubled over the last seven months, to 78 percent from 32 percent.

Standing firm

Still, Lula appears resolute. On Wednesday, Lula told thousands of farmers in Brazil's impoverished northeast that Brazilians would rally around him if he chose to run for a second term in 2006.

Many people say that the corruption goes so deep that even Lula will end up paying a price.

"I think that Lula no longer personifies the hopes of the Brazilian people," Mr. Conti says. "Lawmakers were paid and the PT knew about it.... This is a long way from being over."

Stay tuned.

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