Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A friend sent the Curmudgeon an article by Adam Davidson from the New Yorker about “kompromat”, the Russian word for compromising material.
The article theorized why Trump never criticized Putin. The article argues that it is not only Putin who has Trump over a barrel because he has compromising material; rather it is the Russian “sistema”.
Under “sistema”, according to a Russian political and business expert, “wealth and power are distributed through networks of political figures and businesspeople who follow unspoken rules, in an informal hierarchy…” leading to a country where “business has not taken over the state, nor vice versa; the two have merged in a union of total and seamless corruption.”
The Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation indicates that Brazil, during the thirty years of democracy after the military surrendered power, has had its own “sistema”; like Russia, it has become a country where “business and the state have merged in a union of total and seamless corruption.”
The Curmudgeon blames former Vice President Sarney, who assumed power upon the pre-inauguration death of Tancredo Neves. The Neves/Sarney ticket was indirectly elected by a Brazilian Congress comprising, as Lula so trenchantly put it, “300 scoundrels”. Once in power, Sarney quickly re-established the “sistema” that had been largely curtailed by the military.
Five years later, there was backlash, as many candidates for President ran on platforms claiming they would abolish corruption. Former President Collor defeated not-yet-former President Lula. During his short reign in office, Collor strove to funnel corruption into his own pocket; this was anathema to the “sistema” and Collor was impeached.
There followed eight years of President Cardoso, who allegedly bought the votes needed to change the Constitution to permit his re-election. Lula, in 2002, ran on an anti-corruption platform and won; he was re-elected four years later notwithstanding the “mensalão” corruption scandal. If effect, Lula became the unofficial head of the “sistema“.
During the past twenty years, and particularly the last ten, the “sistema” came into its own, spreading its tentacles into all parts of the country and all parts of its economy, starting with the state-owned companies. During that period, no substantial infrastructure contract was ever awarded, anywhere in Brazil, without a huge kickback to politicians from businessmen—the “sistema” flourished.
Lava Jato has now exposed the “sistema” for what it was, and still is: its all-pervasive breadth and depth, its unspoken rules and informal hierarchy, its untouchable “colonels” who rule regional fiefdoms, its overarching and seamless corruption.
To their credit, the Brazilian people have (mostly) welcomed the challenge to the “sistema” and have supported the efforts by the public prosecutors, federal police and the judiciary to bring criminals to justice.
The “sistema” however, is not giving up without a struggle, as is shown by the machinations now swirling around the choice of candidates for the October state and national elections.
The Curmudgeon will discuss that aspect of the “sistema” in his next column. Spoiler alert: it will focus on the “Centrão”.