Opinion by Jeb Blount
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – While the expanding size and scope of institutionalized corruption uncovered by Brazil’s Lava Jato, or “Car Wash” probe continues to shock Brazilians, its most basic and unassailable conclusion, that Brazil’s political class is rotten to the core, hardly comes as a surprise.
Brazilians have long accepted that “all politicians are corrupt”. A few honest politicians exist, but they are little more than powerless and Quixotic exceptions that prove the rule.
When graft is the norm and impunity near absolute, resistance to corruption can, often fairly, be judged futile, even masochistic. When everyone is dirty, “good” politicians are those who “rouba mas faz”, Portuguese for “steals but get things done”.
Ends justify means. Law’s role as a check on power is bent to serve power itself. It’s either an inconvenience to allies or a weapon to cow opponents. Brazil has a saying for this: “For my friends everything; for my enemies, the law.”
As a result, everything from policy to megaprojects, regulation and jobs becomes a fight over government spoils. Only suckers, losers and the hopelessly righteous refuse their cut or under-the-table payments for the privilege of getting on with their lives.
In short, just about every Brazilian is in on the game.
To make a real dent in the corrosive corruption polluting their institutions and limiting their aspirations, Brazilians must include themselves as unindicted co-conspirators in the Car Wash scandal.
This doesn’t mean Brazilians aren’t victims, but they’re complicit too. Popular sovereignty also means popular responsibility. Evidence of widespread and unprecedented corruption existed a decade before Car Wash exploded. Yet Brazilians ignored it and reelected the gangsters in charge three times.
The surge of outrage at the monumentally immoral, corrupt and irresponsible behavior of President Michel Temer has been overwhelmingly partisan. It largely ignored or sought to diminish the criminal and economically catastrophic actions of his Workers’ Party (PT) predecessors, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Yet, despite the implication of leaders of all major political parties, Temer’s ascension to the presidency after Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment the result of his election as Rousseff’s Vice-President, and his PMDB party’s role as Rousseff and Lula’s main base of support during thirteen years of staggering corruption, many Brazilians still refuse to accept the PT’s central role in maintaining corruption they claim to abhor.
Corruption is either wrong or its ok. Too many support the latter. Belief Temer’s economic reforms are necessary to fix the economic crisis deepened by the Car Wash scandal doesn’t make the argument for his ouster less compelling. Lula and Rousseff’s social achievements don’t excuse their governments’ corruption.
To beat corruption, every Brazilian who has bribed a cop or bureaucrat to fix problem, however unjust or contrived the infraction or openly extortionist the difficulty, needs to accept personal responsibility for the mess. I know few who haven’t paid a bribe or sought special treatment.
I sympathize with the frequently impossible situations behind such choices. In 25 years in Brazil, I’m not blameless myself, and my status as a gringo has allowed me to bluff my way out of situations with more risk for locals.
In the end, though, I found that things usually work faster by shunning fixers and the “jeitinho”, Brazil’s ever-present “little way” to make problems disappear.
The way forward is not easy. Lava Jato offers Brazil a fresh start. Jailing old leaders and finding new ones is not enough. Power almost always corrupts. The average Brazilian must accept his or her guilt and stop playing along.
* Jeb Blount is a freelance journalist living in Rio de Janeiro. He has lived in Brazil for 25 of the last 27 years, first arriving in the country in 1991. He has worked for such news outlets as Reuters, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter at @JebBlount