Brazil fights corruption at home as it signs Open Government Partnership with the US

Today, Brazil formally unveils its plans for the multi-country initiative, a timely move as ministers are sacked and people take to the streets to demand more transparency.

It is a pivotal moment for Brazil. While the government presents Brazil’s plans for the Open Government Partnership at the UN in New York today, anti-corruption movements are mobilizing across Brazil. In the wake of the September 7 demonstration in Brasilia that brought together almost 10,000 protesters, the Globo newspaper reports that around 30,000 protesters have mobilized through Facebook for a protest in Rio de Janeiro to be held between 17:00 and 20:00 in one of the city’s largest squares, Cinelandia.

The Broom as a Symbol

To attract attention for the event, citizens planted 513 brooms on the beach of Copacabana last night, representative of the country’s 513 Lower House deputies (see the video at original post =>1:00).

Citizens are disgusted with a secret vote that took place in the Chamber of Deputies three weeks ago, acquitting Representative Jacqueline Roriz of corruption charges. As I reported a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Roriz was caught red-handed on videotape receiving a large bribe of public money.

Citizens are also mobilizing in support of the President’s faxina (cleaning). The Minister of Tourism, Pedro Novais, was the fourth minister to resign because of a corruption scandal during the President’s nine months in office. Tourism is a key posting because of the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, both to be held in Brazil. For this reason, advocates hoped that Rousseff would make a technical appointment following Mr. Novais’ resignation. Yet the pressure of coalition allies such as José Sarney (PMDB), President of the Senate, forced Rousseff to accept yet another political appointee.

Explaining Brazil’s Embryonic Movements Against Corruption

The public largely views President Rousseff as hostage to a political establishment steeped in corruption. Ironically, Rousseff has ostensibly been trying to shake the image of a anti-corruption crusader in order to keep congressional allies from rebelling.

Yet the public has been eager to support this faxina. “Everyone Against Corruption” (Todos Contra a Corrupção), is the headline anti-corruption movement in Brazil, but it is composed of smaller, local movements. In Rio de Janeiro, I spoke with the leader of the 31 of July Movement (@fora_corrupto), Marcelo Medeiros. What is odd about Mr. Medeiros’ initiative is that it is composed principally of 60-something middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Rio de Janeiro. Many people who lived part of their adult lives under the dictatorship (1964-85) have a Pavlovian aversion to speaking critically about politics. In the cause of self-preservation, most avoided speaking about government under authoritarian rule. Yet Medeiros and his colleagues seem to have overcome this ingrained response.

A small business owner, Medeiros explains that after reading the article “Why don’t Brazilians React?” (which I wrote about a month ago), he and friends decided they could no longer stand around idle: "Corruption is nothing new in Brazil, it’s been around for many years and there has always been a corrupt side to life in Brazil, but this time it has reached such a proportion that it’s unacceptable. Government only reacts, it doesn’t act proactively despite media reports on corruption.”

Medereiro’s 31 de Julho movement illustrates that momentum for better governance need not be led exclusively by disaffected social-media driven youth.

Open Government Partnership

Meanwhile, Brazil formally unveiled its plans for the Open Government Partnership in New York today. The Minister of the Comptroller General, Jorge Hage, noted that the development of his country’s plan was a “rich process” and that “this is not the final plan… it is the beginning of a process.” The plan resembles the leaked draft I obtained two weeks ago, and makes some promising commitments for open government, including a website, an integrated platform for federal ombudsmen, the development of a National Open Data Plan and Data Infrastructure, and generally integrating open-data type initiatives into a host of regulatory agencies and governmental initiatives. A presidential decree issued earlier this week also creates an Inter-Ministerial Commission on Open Government, composed of the most central federal ministries. Hopefully this Commission will incorporate systemic transparency reforms into rules and regulations, rather than simply providing Gov 2.0 platforms for institutions that lack open, transparent designs to begin with.

Ironically, the first section of Brazil’s OGP commitments revolves around freedom of information, the regulation of which hinges on a bill actively being obstructed in the Senate. Last week, stalling tactics by disgraced ex-President and current Senator Fernando Collor gained the support of the President of the Senate, ex-President José Sarney. Mr. Sarney endorsed Mr. Collor’s “motion for information,” a tactic that, when approved, effectively paralyzes a bill until the information is handed over by the Executive Branch.

The President’s Office has made clear its intention to approve the law as soon as possible. Given discord between the ex-Presidents-cum-Senators on the one hand, and President Rousseff, on the other, it appears that a showdown is in the works. Rousseff initially sought to have the bill approved in May 2011, but Collor and Sarney prevented the President from making good on those intentions.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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