Category Archives: Brazil

Jose Dirceu guilty in Brazil corruption trial

Lula’s former chief of staff and all-round superlative backroom operator Jose Dirceu has been found guilty of corruption for his involvement in the mensalão scandal. This matters because even though Dirceu fell from grace and saw his own presidential ambitions dashed when the scheme for buying legislative support for the Lula agenda was uncovered, Dirceu remained one of the most important movers and shakers not only in Brazil, but also in Latin America. Depending on the prison sentence length — if one is imposed and appeals don’t negate the whole trial process — it could more or less permanently push Dirceu from the scene. An interesting historical question will be the extent to which this causes people to reexamine Lula’s relationship to corruption during his presidency. At the moment he has a Reaganesque teflon shield that prevents the asking of awkward questions despite some questionable associations for the ex-president. While it is unlikely that anyone will suggest Lula lined his own pockets, people may start to ask how much he knew about what was going on, and if he didn’t, why not.

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Filed under Brazil, Corruption, News brief

Brazilian justice and the Mensalão

Matthew Taylor from the American University has quite a good piece in Brazil in Focus up on the Mensalão corruption scandal and some of the larger points it tells us about deficiencies in Brazil’s justice system. A telling section of the piece:

Whatever the reasons, this triumphalism is misplaced. Indeed, the mensalão trial is an important cautionary tale about Brazil’s rise to world prominence. Brazil’s byzantine judicial system is a significant impediment to development, and its failings aggravate corruption, stifle business, and threaten human rights. The court system is delay-ridden and exasperatingly formalistic, structured in ways that serve and benefit elites and their lawyers. Regardless of what sentences the high court eventually imposes, it is hard not to be appalled by how long it has taken to resolve a case that broke in 2005, during Lula’s first term. Although it started in the high court, and thus cannot be appealed, the mensalão case already has lasted more than seven times longer than a famously equivalent case, also involving a presidential chief of staff: the US Watergate case. And this is not even one of Brazil’s longest trials.

Worth a read.

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Filed under Brazil, Corruption

A change in Brazil’s economic policy consensus?

Former Brazilian finance minister Maílson de Nobréga has shared with O Estado de São Paulo the obvious, but not necessarily widely reported conclusion that there has been a substantial change in Brazil’s economic policy. The consensus economic policies in Brazil can be traced back to the Real Plan of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and focused squarely on controlling inflation. For the last eighteen years monetary policy from the Banco Central and governmental fiscal policy has been devoted to keeping inflation down at levels familiar to Australians, not the eye-watering 8,000% plus rates that were seen episodically in 1980s and early 1990s Brazil. Understandably, Brazilian policy makers have subsequently had a bit of a phobia about inflation. Dilma appears to have cracked through this fear.

The point made by Maílson is that the government is now focusing on influencing the value of the real, Brazil’s currency, and bringing down interest rates. If this means inflation might creep up a little bit, so be it. As Maílson notes, this is the first real change in Brazil’s core macroeconomic policy since 1994.

Three things are interesting about the changes brought in by Dilma.

First and perhaps foremost, the ease with which Dilma has quietly pushed this policy through points to a real change in how Brazilians and the country’s macroeconomic literati feel about their ability to control inflation. On one level this represents a healthy shift in thinking that opens up some potentially useful macroeconomic policy options. On another level there is some room for concern if the government gets too comfortable with letting inflation drift. What often gets forgotten is the serious damage that inflation does to the poor, of which Brazil still has many, who lack access to the financial instruments necessary to manage the economic stresses of rapidly rising prices. Killing inflation in Brazil has probably been at least as important as Bolsa Familia in tackling the country’s poverty rates — it allowed the bottom quintiles to  save, plan for the future, and crucially for the consumer boom, access credit.

The second interesting thing about Dilma’s policy changes is that it demonstrates a very clear recognition of just how much the over-valued real is damaging the country’s industrial base. Sure, the value of overall exports are soaring, but that has a lot to do with commodity prices. The pages of Folha, Estadão, and Valôr have been filled with stories of firms closing down in the face of cheap Chinese imports and, more recently, US markets closing in the face of a rising dollar. Dilma’s concern on this front is very real and very deep. Highly aggressive language about currency wars from her finance minister Guido Mantega was echoed by the president herself this week at the UN General Assembly opening.

The final interesting point is one that will be very welcome to Brazilian businesses struggling to find affordable credit in Brazil to finance new operations. A consistent complaint from firms has been the high domestic interest rates, which in turn helps push up the value of the real. Pushing rates down is part of a strategy of trying to stimulate the economy within the bounds of what the government is fiscally able to do — Dilma does not have as much money to play with as might appear from a survey of the country’s foreign currency reserves.

Debate in Brazil on this is vibrant is likely to heat up, which is a good thing given the very different economic scenario both in Brazil and internationally.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Brazil, Macroeconomics

Here we go again? Brazil and Turkey trying to defuse Iran?

O Estado de São Paulo is reporting that the Brazilian and Turkish foreign ministers are talking of relaunching the May 2010 Tehran declaration on nuclear fuel swaps in an effort to prevent an armed attack on Iran. For those who don’t remember, the reaction from the US was, at best, frigid, or to quote one US diplomat talking off the record at the time “Hilary was pissed”. The clever thing that Brazil’s Antonio Patriota and Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoglu have done this time is to pull in another player, namely Sweden’s Carl Bildt.

Reviving the 2010 deal is likely to be received poorly by the nuclear powers trying to pull Iran back from the proliferation brink. That Brazil is pushing such an idea on the margins of this year’s UN General Assembly should not come as a surprise — Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was explicit in her address that the world has too many weapons of mass destruction and should work to get rid of them all and focus on hunger and poverty instead. While it is hard to argue with her point, we might also ask awkward questions for Brazil about diverting resources away from small arms and warplane manufacturing towards development-facilitating activities, two lucrative export industries for her country.

Dilma is less beholden the hard left of her Workers Party than Lula was — we need only look at how she stared down recent labour action in Brazil — but still needs to throw the odd bone to the Party old guard who have found memories of resisting the empire with their Iranian brothers in the 1970s. What probably matters more in this instance is Brazilian desires to squash anything that might create a precedent for unilateral or multilateral violation of sovereignty, a principle that is utterly sacrosanct for Brazilian foreign policy. After all, another key theme in Dilma’s address to open the UNGA was that the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” should be accompanied with a parallel “Responsibility While Protecting”. In practical terms this would likely leave those participating in any internationally sanctioned intervention in a country such as, say Syria, liable for collateral damage. Given the difficulty of getting those with the capability to actually undertake R2P actions to participate, the Brazilian coda, if accepted, would make the potential legal and political costs of such missions even more prohibitively high. And with no R2P being practiced another threat to sovereignty is defused.

All this cynical analysis aside, hopefully the world will get lucky and Sweden will find a way to work with the established team of Brazil and Turkey to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and prevent another conflagration in the Middle East.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Brazil, Foreign Policy / Diplomacy, Security

Judicial reform in Brazil

A useful piece by Reuters on Eliana Calmon and her efforts to bring anti-corruption reform to the judiciary in Brazil. This is not to say that the entire judicial system in Brazil is corrupt. Rather, the issue is one of the challenges of what Guillermo O’Donnell called ‘horizontal accountability’ — the effective implementation and action of mutual oversight and checks and balances in a fully functional democracy. It looks different in each country, and Brazil is diligently and very publicly strengthening its horizontal accountability frameworks.

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Filed under Brazil, Corruption, News brief

Pointed analysis of Mercosur from former Uruguayan President Sanguinetti

Former Uruguayan president Julio Maria Sanguinetti (1985-1990, 1995-2000) has published a very insightful article about the state of Mercosur on the Infolatam.com site.

Sanguinetti starts with a quick review of the bloc, noting that the first eight years from 1991 to 1998 were marked by numerous successes, but when Brazil devalued the real in 1999, the institutional fragility of the bloc became clear. Dispute resolving systems were barely in place and didn’t work. Argentina then shifted to a highly protectionist trade policy within a common market. What little institutional and legal strength Mercosur retained took a serious blow with the opportunistic suspension of Paraguay earlier this year.

The Treaty of Ushuaia was implemented to vouchsafe the democratic nature of member-states after a nearly successful attempted 1996 coup in Paraguay. This is the mechanism that was used by Argentina and Brazil to suspend Paraguay and let Venezuela into the bloc. But, as Sanguinetti points out, the Treaty requires that extensive consultations with the questioned country take place before it is suspended. His problem with the procedures followed in Mendoza is that these consultations did not take place and that massive political pressure was used to silence Uruguayan objections to a clear violation of the Mercosur treaties by Argentina and Brazil.

As intrinsically distasteful as Lugo’s impeachment may have been, Sanguinetti reminds us that it took place through the constitutionally appropriate mechanisms in what amounted to a political trial. It should not have mattered that Lugo was seen as something of a friend by Dilma and Cristina.

A quick Google Translate rendition of Sanguinetti’s last paragraph is worth including for the non-Spanish reading:

“What happened in Mendoza is a setback in the process of regional integration and the international validity of the statutes and the recognition of their underlying principles. In the name of democracy, [Argentina and Brazil] have ignored all the values ​​that underpin it. There are no laws or principles. In the name of solidarity or political enmities, [they are] acting without the constraints of law. Neither has the principle of nonintervention been left standing. From now on, anything goes.”

What Sanguinetti is getting at is a much deeper systemic problem with inter-American affairs and a central remaining challenge to total democratic consolidation in the region. Elections are an important part of democracy, but their significance is limited when you have an attitude in the political class that because they are in charge they can do whatever they want.

The operating concept here is what Guillermo O’Donnell called ‘horizontal accountability‘, the idea that there are rules, procedures and institutions that restrain the arbitrary actions of the state in a clear and predictable manner. There are clear signs from Argentina and Brazil, let alone Paraguay, that elected leaders at all levels have not quite internalized the idea that in a fully consolidated democracy there is a system of checks and balances that restrain executive caprice. Indeed, the big story right now in Brazil is about the mensalão corruption scandal, which charges that political advisers around Lula were running a ‘cash retainer’ system to buy votes in congress to get the get governmental legislation through.

The short-shrift given to regulatory and legal restraints by some political actors is amplified when we turn to the international arena. The open secret in inter-American affairs is that most issues are settled through presidential diplomacy, hence the large number of regional summit meetings. Legal and institutional structures are not put in place to effectively govern bilateral and multilateral relations (for example, what is the institutional and juridical strength of CELAC and Unasur?), and when they are in place, they are either ignored or marginalized. This latter case is exactly what we see happening in Mercosur. We don’t have the bandwith to list all of the unresolved intra-Mercosur trade spats that have blithely ignored the bloc’s internal dispute resolution and juridical mechanisms. Suffice it to say that member-countries have had to either threaten or go to the WTO dispute body to get satisfaction. Sanguinetti’s point, which is particularly problematic for a small country like Uruguay, is that the legal frameworks for important groupings such as Mercosur have become just so much window dressing in the face of presidential want and desire in big countries such as Brazil.

There is also an important foreign policy point in Sanguinetti’s comments. Brazilian diplomats are very clear that the international sovereignty norm is sacrosanct — one state may not intervene in the internal affairs of another state. Yet, this is precisely what has happened in the Paraguayan case. Indeed, the deeper irony is that while the historical case was that the political right pushed hardest for regime change, the tide has now shifted and it is the left that has the most pronouncements and interventions for its neighbours. This has been particularly evident in the Brazilian case where the willingness of Brazilian presidents and presidential advisors to make direct intervention in the internal political developments of other regional countries has been rising since 2003.

Taken its totality, the critique leveled by Sanguinetti goes a long way to explaining why the increasingly technocratic and regulatory sound states of Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico have bound together to for the Pacific Alliance rather than tying themselves more tightly to the ever-more politicized groupings such as Mercosur and even the now predominantly political Unasur. Why to the expense and pain of negotiating and signing onto rules and norms when they are unlikely to have any impact?

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Argentina, Brazil, Democracy, Foreign Policy / Diplomacy, MERCOSUR, Paraguay, Uruguay

Brazil increases aid and loans to African countries

As Brazil shifts from aid recipient to aid provider, African countries are an obvious target, the NY Times reports.

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Filed under Africa, Brazil, Foreign aid, Uncategorized