Has Brazil begun a moral reckoning?

A corruption scandal has rolled over Brazilian society, claiming a president and putting many in jail. Now one big culprit, a construction firm, appears to be contrite. Will its ‘sincere’ apology trigger a moral catharsis?

AP Photo
Brazil's acting President Michel Temer arrives at the presidential palace to address the nation May 12 after the Senate voted to suspend President Dilma Rousseff pending an impeachment trial.

A corruption scandal that has engulfed Brazil for two years seems to know no end. Dozens of politicians and business executives are either in jail or under investigation. One poll finds 92 percent of Brazilians agree that “all politicians are crooks.” Amid the cloud over the nation’s elite, President Dilma Rousseff was forced to step aside while she is tried in the Senate on charges of shady bookkeeping. The economy continues to contract even as Brazil copes with a Zika crisis and doubts over its ability to host the Summer Olympics in August.

An acting president, Michel Temer, has triggered some hope for change. A member of Brazil’s largest party, he promises to be a national unifier and to create jobs. And brave prosecutors remain heroes for defying a culture of impunity as they unravel bribery and bid-rigging schemes tied to the state-run oil giant, Petrobras, and other government projects.

But Brazil may need more. Corruption is a form of moral tyranny and, like nations that emerge from dictatorship, Brazil needs a moment of communal reckoning. Too many politicians are under suspicion. In many countries, such a moment occurs when a prominent leader apologizes for past wrongdoing. Brazilians got a glimpse of such a moral catharsis on May 9 when the country’s second-largest construction contractor, Andrade Gutierrez, issued a “sincere apology” for its role in the scandals as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.

In a published “manifesto,” the company stated that it not only admits “its errors to the Brazilian public” but that it will “remedy the harm it has caused the country.” It listed many reforms for itself, its industry, and the government. But, it added, the scandals must also bring about “deeper cultural changes in the way we do business in Brazil.”

Plea bargains are new legal tools in Brazil, and the company may have been arm-twisted into the apology and its promises of reform. But its lengthy “manifesto” required more than a passing thought of self-interest. At the least, it could serve as a model for other companies as well as elected leaders to come clean and show contrition for misdeeds.

Enough countries have learned the value of public apologies that an international activist group, the International Center for Transitional Justice, wrote about it in a report last year. “Whatever the catalyst, apologies (and the process for developing them) can help a country to replace, at least partially, partisan recriminations with constructive dialogue and unite the public behind the common goals it needs to achieve to move forward,” the report stated. “The process of developing consensus around the need for an apology can help societies to face their past, reaffirm values, and meet their obligations to victims as human beings and citizens in the present and in the future.”

What kind of apologies work best? The report says they must be unequivocal, not diluted by qualifying language, or attempt to redirect blame.

In admitting its errors and seeking to make amends, Andrade Gutierrez may have started a process of healing. Brazilians will at least watch to see if its actions match its words. Has a reckoning begun by one company’s apparent remorse?

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