Brazil’s mensalão: corruption and context

Corruption traditionally involves the spiriting away of public funds for private gain, here the ultimate gains were arguably public. Poverty levels in the country fell more than 51% between 2002 and 2010.

Western commentators and anti-corruption campaigners have hailed Brazil’s mensalão trials as an indication that the country is finally willing to combat corruption at the highest levels. While true, this is a one dimensional portrayal of a complex issue – away from the hype, the mensalão turns the traditional concept of corruption on its head and calls for a more critical examination of the role corruption plays in the governing of countries like Brazil which face massive social inequality and fragmented institutions. 

To be clear, the mensalão were corrupt payments. It was a high-level vote buying scheme perpetrated by members of the Workers’ Party that ran between 2003 and 2005 – the first term of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, although Lula himself has not been implicated in the scandal. It used money from public institutions and it was illegal.

But the dominant narrative of the mensalão trials as simply a winning blow struck by Brazil in the battle against corruption masks an uncomfortable truth: that the votes bought by the mensalão allowed Lula’s Workers’ Party to push through key social policies targeting education, healthcare and income distribution that have helped pull millions of people out of poverty.

Policies such as minha casa minha vida (my house my life), which helps low-income families to buy their own homes, and the bolsa família, a cash-transfer scheme aimed at keeping the children of poor families in school, have gone some way to tackling the huge disparity between Brazil’s rich and poor. Both are part of the wider Brasil sem miséria (Brazil without poverty) scheme, introduced by the Workers’ Party soon after coming to power, which combines a series of social programmes targeting families with an income of less than USD 33 a month. 

According to figures from the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a highly-regarded university and research institute in Brazil, poverty levels in the country fell more than 51% between 2002 and 2010, while the income levels of poor families rose 67% over the same period. 

Corruption traditionally involves the spiriting away of public funds for private gain, here the ultimate gains were arguably public.  

Ideological challenge

Lula’s resounding election win in 2002 was historic for Brazil, not least because his presidency represented an ideological break with the old administration. The former trade union leader campaigned on a promise to ensure that Brazil’s economic wealth was more evenly distributed and subsequently won a convincing victory over his right-wing opponent, Jose Serra.

The Workers’ Party knew it faced an uphill struggle – it had inherited a difficult economic situation and faced international financial markets that were sceptical of, if not downright hostile to, its ideological position. As Lula pulled ahead in the election race, analysts downgraded Brazil’s credit rating and some on Wall Street began predicting Brazil’s economic collapse. The Workers’ Party needed to win over its foreign critics and Lula moved quickly to assuage investors’ fears, announcing that Brazil would continue to adhere to the conditions of a USD 30 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

The Workers’ Party also faced criticism at home. Lula’s election win was the first time the left-wing party had achieved the highest office and it was determined to ensure its social policies would not be held up by a ‘professional’ political class opposed to it on grounds of ideology or class. 

‘Cleaning up’ 

Lula’s party has been significantly bruised by the mensalão scandal. Among the 25 people convicted were José Dirceu, Lula’s former chief of staff; José Genoino, a former president of the Workers’ Party; and Delúbio Soares, a former treasurer for the party. Marcos Valério, a prominent businessman was sentenced alongside them. He has become known as ‘Valérioduto’, which roughly translates as ‘Valério the pipeline’, for his role in the transfer of payments. 

Predictably the Workers’ Party has been critical of the mensalão judgements, calling the trials politically motivated and railing against the considerable media coverage of the events, which it considers partisan.

Some have argued that cleaning up the mensalão has to an extent remained a Worker’s Party affair. One senior Brazilian official confided privately that “the house is being cleaned by members of the same family”. Certainly Supreme Court President Joaquim Barbosa, the first black man to be appointed to the Court, was himself a Lula appointee. He has been hailed as a national hero for his handling of the trials, handing down heavier sentences than many had expected. 

Corruption is without doubt a problem in Brazil and one which the administration appears to be taking seriously. President Dilma Rousseff dismissed six ministers accused of peddling influence within months of assuming the presidency in 2011, and within days of the mensalão judgements she fired two more senior officials, including Deputy Attorney General Jose Weber Holanda, in a separate corruption scandal. 

The mensalão trials have been rightly welcomed and, as the anti-corruption campaigners say, more needs to be done, but the mensalão itself deserve to be considered in the wider political context of a changing Brazil struggling with corruption and inequality.

The politicians who were paid for their votes were not the only Brazilians to benefit from the mensalão.

About the authors

Elissandra M. da Costa is a partner at Claritage, a boutique consultancy firm focused on emerging markets. She specialises in Latin America.

Alexander Sehmer is a freelance journalist who has spent the majority of his career working in Asia and the Middle East.