Farewell José, farewell 2005

Arthur Ituassu
5 December 2005

“This house is judging me, but it is also judging itself”. The year-long political thunderstorm in Brazil was symbolically closed on 30 November 2005 when the congressman José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva – architect of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s rise to power and for more than two decades his most powerful adviser – made his farewell to politics after being judged guilty of “breaching parliamentary decorum”.

By voting 293-192 against him, the Brazilian congress withdrew Dirceu’s mandate and right to stand for election for ten years; he will be 69 years old before he is able to attempt a comeback. Dirceu’s defiant last words – proclaiming his innocence of involvement in the corrupt system of mensalão (vote-buying) and illegal campaign finance, whose exposure has dominated Brazilian politics in 2005 – were enshrined across newspaper headlines as if someone had died, and instantly became part of modern Brazilian history.

Dirceu’s turbulent career

José Dirceu is not just any congressman. He is the mastermind of the political generation that came to power in Brasília with the election of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2002. More even than that, he has been at the centre of Brazilian politics, and particularly its left wing, for the last forty years.

José Dirceu was born in 1946 in the small city of small city of Passa-Quatro in Minas Gerais state, and – like hundreds of thousands of Brazilians, especially from the poor northeast of the country – moved to São Paulo in 1961 to work and study. In April 1964, a military coup overthrew the presidency of João Goulart, and a two-decade period of military rule and intense repression began. In 1966, Dirceu began a short professional career as a lawyer, and a much longer one as a political activist by joining a student’s association called União Estadual dos Estudantes de São Paulo (UEE-SP); by 1967, he had become the leader of this group.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro. His website is here.

Also by Arthur Ituassu on Brazil in openDemocracy:

“Lula: the dream is over” (August 2005)

“Brazil: never the same again” (October 2005)

“Brazil’s gun law: another brick in the wall” (October 2005)

“One hour with George W Bush” (November 2005)


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These years – os anos de chumbo – were dangerous for radicals and dissidents in Brazil. Dirceu was already travelling through stormy weather. In 1968 he was arrested at a meeting of the União Nacional dos Estudantes (UNE). By contrast with many of his leftist contemporaries who were assassinated or “disappeared” as well as tortured, José Dirceu was lucky to spend only a year in prison before finding an escape route: he was among the group of fifteen political prisoners exchanged for Charles Elbrick, the American ambassador kidnapped by the guerrillas of the Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (MR-8) on 4 September 1969.

Dirceu found safety in Cuba, where he worked and studied until 1975. In that year, he secretly returned to live in Cruzeiro do Oeste, a small city in Paraná state – concealing his identity by having plastic surgery performed on his face. He married Clara Becker, who knew him as “Carlos”; they had a child, Zeca, in 1978. Zeca is currently mayor of Cruzeiro do Oeste.

Even before the return to civilian rule in 1985, there was a general anistia (amnesty) for political prisoners in 1979, with those in exile (who had included musicians like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso) allowed to come back to Brazil as well as freeing those like Dirceu living clandestinely to resume an open political career. Dirceu went to live in São Paulo where he was introduced to Lula by the religious political activist Frei Betto, one of the main leaders of the left catholic movement Teologia da Libertação (theology of liberation).

In 1979, Dirceu was one of the main intellectual influences in the creation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT), led by the charismatic metal-worker and trade unionist, Lula. Dirceu’s guiding influence was reflected in his election as in 1987 as representative of São Paulo state. In 1988, Brazil’s transition from military rule was capped by the passing of a new constitution.

Dirceu was elected to Brazil’s congress in 1990 where he played an important role in the impeachment process against the then president, Fernando Collor de Mello (removed from office in 1992). He succeeded Lula as president of the PT, and won re-election to the post in four successive polls. But his crowning political achievement is arguably not his own preferment, but his role as architect of Lula’s election as president after three consecutive defeats (in 1989 to Collor de Mello, in 1994 and 1998 to Fernando Henrique Cardoso).

After Lula’s 2002 victory, José Dirceu secured the powerful role of chief of staff of the Brazilian government. In effect, he ran the political side of the Lula presidency, while the fiscally responsible (even conservative) finance minister Antonio Palocci ran its economic programme. For two and a half years since the government’s inauguration in January 2003, this “triangle” of power held together. Dirceu’s sacking from his government post on 16 June 2005 – when it seemed that he too had been tainted by the corruption scandals engulfing Brazil’s politicians – made clear that with all the problems in Dirceu's vertex of the triangle of power, the government could not deal with the most important issues of contemporary Brazilian society.

Lula’s cloudy future

Dirceu’s fall began in February 2005, when one of his closest aides was exposed on TV asking for money from a man who controlled the federal electronic lottery system in the state of Goiás and wanted to win the bid for controlling also Rio de Janeiro, a much better market.

The situation quickly became worse when Roberto Jefferson, the head of the small populist party the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (PTB) – allied to the PT in Brasília – was accused in two corruption scandals involving the state firms Correios and Irb. Jefferson’s sense of betrayal led him in June 2005 to reveal that Lula’s government and the PT were giving about monthly payment to congressmen in return for their support. In a deadly accusation, Jefferson fingered Dirceu as the organiser of the whole scheme.

The PTB leader turned from accuser to casualty, losing his party position and his congressional mandate, but he has now taken José Dirceu with him – and twelve other congressmen wait to be judged. A series of investigations has uncovered more than 40 million reais (almost $20 million) set aside for irregular operations involving Waldomiro Diniz (a Dirceu aide), Delúbio Soares (the PT’s finance director), Marcos Valério (a Minas Gerais businessman), as well as banks and other political parties.

Also on Brazil’s year of political turmoil in openDemocracy:

Hilary Wainwright, “No end: the crisis of Brazil’s Workers’ Party” (September 2005)

José Dirceu’s exposure, among several other political casualties from the PT over the mensalão scandal that dominated Brazilian politics for most of 2005, is only one of the main reasons why public support for Lula’s government has been buffeted. Today, a second mandate for Lula in the elections due in October-November 2006 is far from guaranteed.

Since the mid-1990s, when Cardoso’s boys restored the economy to near-stability after decades of inflation and politically driven market shocks, Brazilian citizens have not expected radical economic changes. What they have been looking for is a national, political project that could address the deep problems of Brazilian society: basic education, public health and security, judicial bureaucracy, extreme inequalities of income, the nature and quality of public spending, and blockages to democratic progress.

Lula’s election by a decisive margin did not end the healthy divergences in the country – especially between the Partido dos Trabalhadores and Cardoso’s Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) – and these were expected to be part of the normal political argument during Lula’s first period in office. But nobody could have predicted that the party that had always proclaimed itself “different” and “clean” would become deluged by corruption scandals.

Many contingent political factors were responsible for depriving José Dirceu of his political career. They include his own arrogance and ambition, and the machinations of his enemies. But the decisive element is that the Brazilian congress itself had to vote the way it did, to avoid its dangerously low levels of credibility and legitimacy among the Brazilian public sinking even further. It’s not the house that judged José Dirceu; “it’s the people, stupid!”

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