Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Raquel Dodge was sworn in yesterday as Brazil’s 42nd “Procurador Geral da República” succeeding Rodrigo Janot as Chief Federal Prosecutor. At the ceremony, she stated that the Brazilian people hope for a better country and “do not tolerate corruption”.

Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.
Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.

Would that she were right about the corruption; sadly, she’s not. Brazilians, like the citizens of most countries, have a long history of tolerating corruption.

Brazilian Portuguese even has a word—“jeitinho” — that is often, though not always, a synonym for minor corruption. Brazil also has a recognized profession—“despachante” — that is often, though not always, a synonym for people who get things done “with dispatch” through the use of “jeitinho”.

Back when the highway patrol used to stop motorists to check for documents, the document many motorists presented first was a large denomination banknote. Before the electronic “nota fiscal” came in, many service professionals would offer two prices — one with, and the other without, an official receipt.

These are a few examples, but anyone who lives here knows there are many normal, everyday situations where corruption is not simply tolerated, but rather expected practice.

The good news is that much of this well-entrenched attitude seems to be changing, and it’s partly because of the work of Ms. Dodge’s predecessor, who was a crusader. Through Janot’s efforts, together with those of several crusading judges and (perhaps surprisingly) the Federal Police, the astonishing depth and breadth of Brazil’s corruption has been revealed for all to see.

There has traditionally been a disconnect between endemic Brazilian corruption (“jeitinho”, “sem recibo”) which is typically minor, and the recently uncovered systemic corruption, best illustrated by the picture of a rented room filled with suitcases crammed to the brim with large denomination bills totaling more than R$51 million.

When people think of bribing a cop or building inspector with a R$50 or R$100 bill, they don’t think of themselves as being corrupt; they’re just trying to avoid embarrassment or punishment for a mistake. When people see tens of thousands of those bills, they know the suitcases have a far more sinister purpose.

We can hope that Ms. Dodge is right about people in Brazil hoping for a better country; moreover, we can hope that people will begin to realize that, whether it’s one R$100 bill or tens of thousands of them — it’s still corruption.

As a footnote, the picture of the swearing-in ceremony was also indicative of today’s Brazil. There were five high-ranking federal dignitaries present at the podium, four of whom are under investigation for corruption. The other is Brazil’s Chief Justice, who will preside over their trials.

That’s why Ms. Dodge, known for her discretion, did not mention “Lava-Jato” or her predecessor in her inaugural speech. For his part, President Temer did not specifically mention Mr Janot.

Yet, in a thinly-veiled warning to Ms. Dodge to tread lightly, he declaimed that those who go outside the limits of the constitution are abusing their authority.

Ms. Dodge will have her work cut out for her, because the entire political elite in Brasília is waiting to see what they can “get out of Dodge” — what most of them want, but don’t deserve, is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

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