On Corruption, Public Will, and the Distinctions between the 2013 and 2015 Protests in Brazil

Maruicio Savarese’s regularly-excellent A Brazilian Operating in this Area has a thought-provoking piece up about whether the anti-corruption protests in Brazil are effectively sincere.

After waves of colossal protests in 2013 and 2015, it is very tempting to say Brazilians are fed up with corruption and want real transparency and accountability for whatever is done in their name. That may hold true for well-educated and politically savvy people that are now reshaping the country’s institutions; judges, prosecutors, investigators, controllers, intelligence agents, technocrats… But that vast majority in Brazil actually cares too little. Organized society is disorganized and citizen engagement isn’t nearly as important as it is in developed nations. Unlike the protesting crowds suggest, Brazilians only care about corruption when it involves those they reject for other reasons.

I’m inclined to agree here, at least to an extent. I certainly think the above applies to the current situation in 2015; the more recent protests were clearly about partisanship rather than corruption – betrayed in part by the fact protesters pointed to a politician now facing indictment for corruption as an example of a counterpoint to the allegedly-corrupt Dilma Rousseff.

However, I’m not as certain that the 2013 protests are a perfect analogy, or worth lumping in with the protests this year.

I think at the heart of the two protests (2013 and 2015) is the issue of what kinds of corruption are the target of the public’s wrath, something that’s all too often overlooked or simplified. Currently, it’s a case of massive kickback schemes and bribery – in other words, fiscal/institutional corruption. In 2013, the issues were substantively different, ranging from the lack of doctors to the high cost of public expenditures on World Cup stadiums, from the use of police violence to the (ultimately failed) Congressional amendment to make congressional representatives immune to federal investigations. While this was in a way a fiscal matter – public funding for World Cup stadiums could have gone to education and health care – it was as much a social and public issue, more immediately and directly affecting Brazilians in everyday life than the current corruption scandal. Yes, the money that Petrobras paid to businesses and politicians could have gone to public funding in the future, but Brazil only learned about the amounts and corruption after the fact; the public spending on stadiums, while (naturally) over budget, was publicly known to be expensive the moment Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup. And issues like health care or education were on the table long before actual costs of the World Cup spending went into effect. In other words, in 2013, both the failings of this “social” corruption and the gaudiness of spending on other projects were open, public, and known well in advance. By contrast, the details surrounding corruption scandals this year have come out in bits and pieces, revealing data and unveiling corruption long after it has already happened.

That is in part why so many people across the political spectrum were in the streets in 2013, whereas the 2015 protests have been far more partisan. If everybody could directly point to how the socially corrupt policies of social programs and sporting events affected their lives in 2013, the context in 2015 is different. Given how widespread corruption is – with former right-center presidential candidate Aécio Neves (who lost to Rousseff in 2015), who himself had participated in the August 16 protests, now being linked to the corruption scandal himself – the ground is more fertile for partisan demonstrations that conveniently overlook “my” party’s politicians while condemning “their” politicians. Put another way: there are so many politicians from so many different parties from across the political spectrum who have been tied to this type of fiscal/institutional corruption, it is virtually impossible to rail against just some politicians without being a partisan hack (whether one intends to or not), and to call for a complete restructuring of the Brazilian political system (just 27 years into its current constitution) may seem like too much to ask, or too much of a threat to the actual gains under democracy.

As a result, I think that, while there are important overlaps between 2013 and 2015, there are also important distinctions . While I agree with Mauricio that the current protests are not really evidence of a sincere desire to combat (one type of) corruption in Brazil, it does not necessarily indicate an insincerity among Brazilians regarding other types of corruption.  I think, due to the more institutionalized and fiscal nature of the corruption of backroom dealings and bribery among elites, it is not as immediately visible, coming to light after the fact and thus, belatedly bringing (generally fewer) people to the streets. By contrast, the social corruption of 2013 was visible at the moment of its occurrence – in the construction of stadiums, in the lines at understaffed public clinics, in police assaulting unarmed citizens – and thus easier to mobilize more people immediately. Companies paying off politicians is (only occasionally cynically) seen as typical and perhaps unresolvable, as it has already happened; pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a month-long sporting event even while your health care system continues to suffer the crippling effects of neoliberal policies in the 1990s actually can and does have a more immediately visible effect on a broader swath of society, and lacks the generally partisan tenor that complaining about corrupt politicians from the opposition party (but not your own) proffers.

To be clear, I think Mauricio’s general observations on current protests, and the (alleged) anti-corruption sentiment, are fair. When politicians with a history of corruption – like Fernando Collor (though he’s certainly not the only example)- repeatedly win re-election, there is a real problem that voters bear at least some responsibility for (though one cannot ignore the structural issues that allow a non-representative elite to continually be elected to Congress, either). As Mauricio writes,

It is as if there were right-wing and left-wing crimes. People pick and choose what to protest against. That is why there is such a slow pace for public reaction against corruption cases; people start by thinking any accusation is both true and a result of partisanship. When the corrupt have more time to deal with charges, impunity tends to prevail [due to other structural issues – ed.]. Maybe it would be different if there were a widespread sense of urgency coming from citizens.

[…]

Political ignorance surely isn’t a Brazilian exclusive, but here tolerance with corruption and ignorance walk hand in hand like in few places. To make their combat to corruption more effective, Brazil needs more than improving institutions; it needs people to mature in the political debate. One that observes the quality of the Brazilian public square can only conclude that real improvement and a change in the tolerance culture will take quite a while.

I think Mauricio’s complaints about inconsistent public will in 2015 are spot-on. At the same time, so long as the issue remains in public discourse, the possibility remains that eventually, the people can directly shape politics not dissimilar to the way public pressure led to both Congress and Rousseff responding directly to the protesters’ demands in 2013. And while that happens, one can at least hope that, as in Guatemala, perhaps the public reaches a point where they become so fed up as to act in a way that genuinely counters elite corruption and impunity. Only time will tell if that is the case in Brazil.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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