Brazil cleans house: now what?

Brazil's President Rousseff has had a good year in cracking down on corruption. Will the momentum last?

Eraldo Peres/AP/File
In this Aug. photo, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff delivers a speech in Brasilia, Brazil.

It's been a good year for Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, exceeding the expectations of voters and even wowing some skeptics. With a record approval rating of over 70 percent, she exceeded Lula's approval rating after the first year of his presidency by more than 20 points. While there are a number of factors for her popularity, including a strong economy with low unemployment, and proving herself as an independent leader out of Lula's shadow, another important factor has been her crackdown on corruption.

During her first year in office, Dilma sacked six ministers after they came under fire for corruption charges. In the federal government as a whole, 564 public officials were fired for wrongdoing in 2011, though this number is not exactly new: in the past 8 years, over half of the 3,533 public officials who were fired from the federal government lost their jobs because of corruption. Comedy blog Kibe Loco produced a series of videos parodying Dilma's crackdown on corrupt ministers, where an actor dressed in drag would imitate phone calls to her ministers, in which she would yell, using all sorts of profane language, making the ministers cry, and then soothing them like a mother. Dilma's intolerance for corruption was welcomed by many Brazilians, particularly during a year where thousands took to the streets to protest corruption. Popular support to fight corruption also came after the Clean Record Law (Ficha Limpa law) was passed in 2010 after 2 million Brazilians signed petitions in favor of the law, which aimed to bar candidates accused of misdoing from taking office.

But the question is - what now?

The Supreme Court ruled that the Ficha Limpa law would not count towards the 2010 election, and after ruling on several individual cases, the court allowed at least 6 "ficha suja" congressmen and senators to take office, including notorious Senator Jader Barbalho, who took office in late December. (His son came with him, and proceeded to stick out his tongue and make faces for the press, which antagonized the already dismayed Brazilians opposed to his inauguration). It's unclear if the law will be applied to the 2012 municipal elections.

Dilma has made it clear that she won't tolerate corruption in her cabinet, and a minister shakeup in the next few weeks should likely bring in new ministers picked by Dilma, rather than carryovers from Lula's administration. But of the six who left office in disgrace, how many are under investigation and will actually be punished? Cases of ministers returning embezzled funds are few and far between; one of the few is that of former Tourism Minister Pedro Novais, who returned the government funds (worth R$2,156) that he used to pay for a sex motel.

Former Sports Minister Orlando Silva is allegedly planning on running for city councilman in São Paulo in 2012. He wouldn't be the first disgraced politician to come back to life; former President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached in 1992, was elected to the Senate in 2006 and 2010. Notorious politician José Sarney, who also served as president, was first elected to the Senate in 1995, and has served three terms as president of the Senate, a position he currently holds. Another notorious politician, Paulo Maluf, who was on Interpol's "red" list, is currently serving his third term as a federal congressman.

After Dilma's sweep, some are hopeful that it could mean change in Brasília. But without holding wrongdoers responsible and punishing them for their crimes, will corrupt public officials simply try harder to hide what they're doing? And if the Ficha Limpa Law isn't implemented, or if the Supreme Court eventually rules it unconstitutional, will corrupt politicians continue to return to office? Worse yet - will everything acabar em pizza?

---Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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