Growing up in Brazil in the early 1990s, I remember hearing people say things like, “Brazil could be the best country in the world—if it weren’t for corruption.” That’s because, in Brazil, corruption—in some way, shape, or form—has always been the modus operandi of politicians, businesses, and individuals, be it through pork barrel politics, bribing government officials to win government construction contracts, or even paying a little extra so that you don’t fail your driver’s license test. We’re a country with “systematic and petty corruption,” as our reputation goes.
The Jeitinho Brasileiro (roughly translated as Brazilians’ way of navigating bureaucracy through a touch of corruption here and there) is a term known to all Brazilians, from all classes and backgrounds. The notion that there’s no other way to strike deals without some sort of exchange—money, a favor, a little influence—is so pervasive that Brazilians have always accepted it as a fixture of our personal lives and way of governing.
But at last, Brazil is refusing to look away from its deep-seated corruption.
Most recently, we’ve seen this shift in the “perfect storm” of corruption trials facing Brazilian President Michel Temer’s administration this month. Indeed, over the past few years, Brazilians have been facing down the fact that our acceptance of corruption as a normal feature of our brand of democracy has gone too far. Several other incidents have also sparked this revelation. From the Car Wash Investigation that, since 2014, has brought to light the fact that an alarming number of Brazil’s political and business elites have been involved in shady financial deals, to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, it’s clear that corruption in Brazil is widespread and systemic. We’re realizing, finally, that there’s simply too much dirt—and probably more to dig up.
This slew of corruption scandals has forced people and political elites to reckon with the fact that bribery, extortion, and graft eat away at the operation of Brazil’s government and businesses, and that it’s an unsustainable way to run a country or build a reputation.
Last week, the architect behind Rousseff’s impeachment was sentenced to jail for 15 years. Eduardo Cunha, the former Speaker of the House in Brazil, was accused and found guilty of corruption, money-laundering, and tax evasion. This conviction, too, is a direct result of the prosecutor’s efforts in the Car Wash Investigation, whose goal not to leave any stone unturned during the investigation is paying off: So far, it’s led to 130 convictions and a total of 1,362 years, 5 months, and 21 days of jail time.
The investigation, unprecedented in Brazil’s history, has blown up the country’s entire political system.
There’s reason to be optimistic about what this means for the future of Brazilian democracy. Crucially, unearthing these schemes and prosecuting those involved in them is a healthy sign that the country is solidifying the rule of law in its growing democracy. Three years ago, such a barrage of convictions and arrests was unimaginable.
That said, there are several caveats. Based on the scale and scope of corruption, it’s almost impossible to see an end to this period of instability. That on its own is terrifying. With high unemployment, wobbly basic infrastructure like roads, hospitals, and schools, rising crime rates, and a scarred international reputation, people are less and less proud to be Brazilian. This, in turn, has led to waves of protests for a return to stability in the form of military rule. According to some, these scandals are only proof that democracy doesn’t work, that the government can’t be held accountable, and that perhaps authoritarian rule is the silver bullet that would lead to economic recovery, a positive position in the international community, and a return to normalcy (or some semblance of it).
These scandals have forced political elites, in particular the Temer government, to look for ways to quell turmoil and frustration. The most recent example of this was in the fact that the administration has allowed millions of Brazilians to withdraw from their Guarantee Fund for Length of Service (FGTS) inactive accounts, which can be loosely compared to Social Security contributions that American employers make on behalf of their employees. But while millions of Brazilians have welcomed the move, and have used the extra money to pay off debt (or go on vacation), others wonder if that wasn’t just a way to get people to calm down and, at least for the moment, forget about the economic recession—the worst since the 1930s—and drum up support for Temer’s government, whose popularity has only gone down since taking office. (Guilherme Lourenço, a teacher in Brazil, told me that he sees Temer’s move as “pure marketing”—a “strategy to get people to like him, because in the long term, that money means nothing.”)Like any moment of change, it’s still hard to tell what’s going to happen in Brazil once these investigations begin to come to a close, whenever that may be. Similarly, no one can tell what other new scandals might be exhumed. Still, the overall sentiment among Brazilians is that we can’t turn back—and that, in itself, is a good thing.