Political Minutes: Roots of Brazilian Impunity


On Monday, March 11, the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs hosted a panel discussion on the issue of political corruption and impunity in Brazil. Panelists included: Albert Fishlow, Economist and Director of the Columbia Institute of Latin American Studies; Luiz Felipe d’Avila, Political Scientist and President of CLP (Centro de Liderança Pública); and Indio de Costa, Lawyer and Secretary of Sport of the City of Rio de Janeiro. Journalist Lucia Guimares served as moderator for this event. The discussion began with the mention of the infamous Mensalao scandal in 2005, which threatened to bring down the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The scandal broke when Brazilian Congressional Deputy, Roberto Jefferson told a Brazilian newspaper that the ruling party, Partido dos Trabalhadores had paid numerous Congressional deputies 30,000 reais every month in order to vote for the legislation favored by the ruling party. This scandal was an optimistic turning point in the history of Brazilian politics that led to the creation of a truth commission.

Brazilians protest government corruption

Albert Fishlow was the first to take the floor and he began his speech by  saying, “[i]nstitutions don’t arise afresh. They don’t suddenly appear without any basis. In some fashion or another, when we think about the rule of law and the way in which it applies in Brazil, I think it is necessary to understand that this is equally true.” Firstly, he noted the inherent differences between the Roman law, which is adopted in Brazil and the Common law that is prevalent in Anglo-Saxon countries. Fishlow then attributed the Mensalao scandal to the inadequacy of the congress. He stated, “[t]o a considerable degree it is not accidental that the Mensalao arose as a way of gaining the necessary majorities within a congressional system that has so many independent parties and independent interests.”  Fishlow also stressed the importance of free press in the process of eliminating corruption within the political system. Lastly, he affirmed that Brazil has taken serious measures to impugn corrupt political figures since the scandal.

Afterwards, Luiz Felipe d’Avila continued the discussion on corruption by emphasizing the importance of values and he stated that the loss of certain values could undermine a political system. He then went on to prove that Brazil, in fact, does have strong democratic institutions. Brazil has clean and periodic elections, parties alternating in power, a market economy, freedom of expression, religious freedom and a strong and independent judiciary system.

The second half of D’Avila’s speech was focused on Brazil’s problems, namely populism and the lack of transformational leadership. He asserted that, “no political leaders are willing to promote cultural change and run political risk” in Brazil and that, “[p]opulism continues to be a recurrent binding constraint for promoting institutional changes.” D’Avila believes that the problem also lies in the fact that the Brazilian government continually tackles false problems such as, the exchange rate war instead of facing core institutional problems. However, he noted that there is an increasing number of Brazilians who are intolerant to impunity and suspicious of the paternalistic state. D’Avila finally ended his speech with the message that in order to mobilize people and make changes, it is important to create a sense of urgency. He quoted Ronald Reagan saying, “[w]hen you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”

Following this speech, Indio de Costa took the floor and provided an example of the political changes that are taking place in Brazil. He introduced the “ficha limpa” law, which was ratified in 2010 that prevented corrupt politicians from being re-elected. This was a big step towards change and transparency within the political system because in the past, criminals used the political system to protect themselves. Before this new clean criminal record law was enacted, politicians who were charged for committing crimes by more than one judge could still be elected and re-elected until charged by the Supreme Court, which could take up to 40 years. Finally, after Indio de Costa delivered his closing remarks, the floor was opened to the audience and the panelists received a variety of questions, ranging from issues regarding Brazil’s economy to the integrity of the current elected politicians.