Freedom in the World
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Brazil received a downward trend arrow due to increases in violence and lawlessness on the part of the country's police, an upsurge of largely narcotics-related violent crime, a lack of respect for indigenous rights, and growing corruption within the federal government.
As President Fernando Henrique Cardoso neared the end of his second and final term in office, in 2001 the national electoral contest began to heat up, with those candidates pledged to continue the ruling Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) legacy of reform trailing badly in public opinion surveys. Political setbacks from the energy crisis and a growing number of accusations that senior members of his government had engaged in corrupt practices have eroded public support for the PSDB and tarnished Cardoso's once-impeccable image. The energy crisis in particular seemed to drive a wedge between the PSDB and its fractious coalition partners, although causes of the crisis go beyond an alleged lack of government foresight and managerial talent. In fact, domestic electricity consumption has increased by 260 percent in the last 20 years, and by about 51 percent since 1994, the year that finance minister and presidential candidate Cardoso launched a successful economic stabilization program. In late 2001, leftist Workers' Party (PT) leader Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, a thrice-failed presidential contender, took an early lead in the polls, but a victory for the former union leader in 2002 is far from certain. Although street crime, urban sprawl, land reform, and the devastation of the Amazon basin also remain important political issues, there is a growing understanding among Brazilian opinionmakers and others that Brazilian political corruption has severely limited its government from effectively addressing those other issues. In 2001, Brazil suffered from an unprecedented wave of kidnappings, which authorities say is largely the work of organized crime groups.
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil retained a monarchial system until a republic was established in 1889. Democratic rule has been interrupted by long periods of authoritarian rule, most recently under military regimes from 1964 until 1985, when elected civilian rule was reestablished. A new constitution, which went into effect in 1988, provides for a president to be elected for four years and a bicameral congress, consisting of an 81-member senate elected for eight years and a 503-member chamber of deputies elected for four years.
Civilian rule has been marked by corruption scandals. The scandal that had the greatest political impact eventually led to the impeachment, by congress, of President Fernando Collor de Mello, who ruled from 1989 to 1992. Collor resigned and was replaced by a weak, ineffectual government led by his vice president, Itamar Franco.
In early 1994, Cardoso, who was Franco's finance minister and a market-oriented centrist, forged a three-party, center-right coalition around Cardoso's PSDB. Cardoso's "Plan Real" stabilized Brazil's currency and gave Brazilian wage earners greater purchasing power. As the anti-inflation plan began to yield dramatic results, Cardoso, a former Marxist backed by big media and big business, jumped into the lead. In October 1994 Cardoso won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote, against 27 percent for Lula da Silva, the leader of the leftist PT and an early front-runner. The senate was divided among 11 parties, and the chamber of deputies among 18. Cardoso's coalition did not have a majority in either house.
Cardoso spent 1995 cajoling opponents and bargaining for the congressional votes needed to carry out his economic liberalization program. That fall, his government was rocked by a bribery and phone-tapping scandal. In April 1996, Cardoso indicated that he favored a constitutional amendment to drop the one-term limit, which would allow him to run for reelection in 1998, and in 1997 he was able to secure congressional approval for such a measure.
In 1996, land issues were high on the political agenda. In January, Cardoso announced presidential decree 1775, which allows states, municipalities, and non-Indians to challenge, at the federal level, proposed demarcation of Indian lands. Following the decree, miners and loggers increased their encroachments on Indian land. In another development, a radicalized movement representing landless peasants continued to occupy mostly fallow land in rural areas to pressure the government to settle rural families. The activism contributed to scores of violent conflicts between peasants on the one hand and, on the other hand, the military, the police, and private security forces, which act with virtual impunity.
In 1998, Cardoso's first-ballot victory (nearly 52 percent of the votes cast) over Lula, his nearest rival, was tempered somewhat by a less convincing win at the congressional and gubernatorial levels. His win was also overshadowed when published accounts of secretly recorded conversations seemed to indicate that two top officials were steering a bid to privatize part of the state-run telephone holding company to a consortium of personal friends, who ended up losing the auction.
The revelation in 1999 of a vast criminal conspiracy centered in the jungle state of Acre highlighted the lawlessness of Brazil's remote areas and moved Cardoso to take firm measures to combat organized crime. At the same time, a power struggle between the state intelligence service (Abin) and the federal police, in which the wiretapping of top political figures, including Cardoso himself, was revealed, contributed to the scandal over the privatization of the national telecommunications system.
In 2000, the Brazilian senate removed, for the first time ever, one of its members accused of corruption. Public safety issues appeared increasingly to determine how people spent both their money and their time. In September, a congressional committee probing organized crime and drug trafficking released an explosive report implicating nearly 200 officials in 17 of Brazil's 27 states--including at least ten state and federal congressmen and a host of police officers, judges, mayors, and other local officials. Cardoso used the opportunity to warn that what he called a barrage of unfounded accusations was eroding faith in Brazilian democracy. In October, mayoral candidates of the moderately left, anti-corruption, PT swept to victory in a number of the country's most important cities, including Sa Paolo--Brazil's financial and economic nerve center--giving a boost to the party's chances in 2002 presidential elections.
Long a transshipment country for cocaine produced in the Andean region, Brazil had, by the turn of the century, become the world's second largest consumer of the illegal drug, after the United States. A virtual low-intensity warfare situation in several Brazilian cities, most notably Rio de Janeiro, involving rival drug gangs and the sometimes outgunned police is being fueled by the volume of cocaine and its cheaper derivates consumed locally. Violent urban crime is also endemic to Sa Paulo, the country's business capital, which, because it boasts the second largest helicopter fleet in the world (after New York City), enables companies and wealthy individuals to avoid the city's traffic and crime. The richest 20 percent of Brazil's population accounts for 63 percent of the national income, 24 times the amount received by the lowest 20 percent; such disparities make a high incidence of street crime common to almost all of Brazil's major cities. A continuing crisis in law enforcement has resulted in police strikes in more than half a dozen Brazilian states, sparked in part by extremely poor wages paid to lower-ranking officers and a generalized lack of training and attention to equipment needs. In response to U.S. pressure, the Brazilian military is playing an increasing role in antinarcotics efforts. In August 2001, the daily newspaper Folha de Sa Paulo published an army document, later disavowed by the high command, which stated that "often it is even necessary to scratch out citizens' rights" in order to maintain public order.
Citizens can change their government through elections. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the right to organize political and civic organizations. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is credited with initiating a marked change in attitudes concerning international criticism on rights issues, from aggressive, nationalistic rejection to dialogue and openness. He created a ministerial-rank secretariat charged with defending human rights. The crime of torture was upgraded from a misdemeanor to a serious crime punishable by up to 16 years in prison.
According to the United Nations, Brazil boasts the highest rate of homicides caused by firearms for any country not at war--more than 70 percent. Police say that most violent crime--perhaps as much as 70 to 80 percent--in the country is related, directly or indirectly, to the illegal drug trade, including most of the 37,000 annual murders. Brazil's murder rate has more than doubled since the mid-1980s, and in 2000 reached 28 homicides per 100,000. Within five years, homicides in Sa Paulo increased 41 percent, to 3,249 in 2000. An estimated 200,000 Brazilians are employed in the narcotics business, with at least 5,000 heavily armed gang members working for different drug-trafficking groups in Rio de Janeiro alone. In a situation reminiscent of what occurred in Colombia in the 1980s, "drug commands" have now turned Rio and other cities into urban battlefields, where youths pressed into criminal service tote AK-47 assault rifles and cheap cocaine is readily available at social events. The drug apparatus serves in some respects as an alternative government, offering slum dwellers food baskets, new soccer fields, and "security" patrols, some armed with high-powered explosives and, at least on one occasion, antitank missiles.
The climate of lawlessness is reinforced by a weak judiciary, although recently some improvements have been made. Public distrust of the judiciary has resulted in poor citizens taking the law into their own hands, with hundreds of reported lynchings and mob executions. Brazil's supreme court is granted substantial autonomy by the constitution. However, the judicial system is overwhelmed and vulnerable to chronic corruption. With a few exceptions, it has been virtually powerless in the face of organized crime. A national breakdown in police discipline and escalating criminal violence, fueled by a burgeoning drug trade and increasing ties to international criminal organizations, have added to a climate of lawlessness and insecurity. Human rights, particularly those of socially marginalized groups, are massively violated with impunity.
In a positive development, federal government prosecutors have begun to act as public interest advocates on issues ranging from the environment and consumer and Indian rights, to the monitoring of police behavior. Recent legal reforms have given itinerant "traveling judges" broad special powers to decide on legal matters in makeshift courtrooms, enabling the system to clear thousands of backlogged criminal and civil cases, thus allowing the rural poor a greater possibility to have their issues addressed by law.
Brazil's police are among the world's most violent and corrupt; in 2001 Amnesty International found that they systematically resort to torture to extract confessions from prisoners. (In response, the federal human rights secretary announced a modest program to fight the practice. One immediate result of setting up a "hotline" for citizen complaints was the revelation that the police sometimes hire professional thugs to beat confessions out of prisoners.)
Police are mostly grossly underpaid in the lower ranks, and in most states, salaries start at the minimum wage level of $72 a month. Similarly, working conditions are poor. Most lower-ranking police hold second jobs in order to make ends meet. However, higher-level officers make as much as 15 times the salary given to entry-level recruits, a sticking point within the police institution. Despite the excessive workload and poor pay typical for police officers, strikes by police are often met with public indifference or worse, since strikes are often accompanied by looting and crime, and because many Brazilians believe that the police are corrupt. Indeed, as was the case in Bahia, where a 2001 job action resulted in a crime spree that left at least 30 people dead, the threat of civil unrest is usually the police's chief bargaining tool, a lever that is denied to them when the military is called in to restore order.
Extrajudicial killings are usually disguised as shootouts with dangerous criminals. In many cities "death squads," often composed of off-duty state police, terrorize shantytown dwellers and intimidate human rights activists attempting to investigate abuses. Since 1994, the federal government has deployed the army to quell police strikes and bring order to Rio de Janeiro's 400 slums, most of which are ruled by gangs in league, or in competition, with corrupt police and local politicians. In July 2001, Cardoso reportedly considered giving army troops special police powers in order to replace police forces that went on strike in several states, and contemplated creating a national guard, composed of elite police and army troops, to circumvent the restrictions on the military making arrests. There are some 1.3 million private security guards in Brazil, more than twice the number of police serving in the country's 27 states.
The low police salaries are only part of the problem facing reformers. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro, the murders of police officers and bombings at police precincts are regular occurrences. Police work is also hampered by poor training, resulting in ineffective investigative techniques, overly bureaucratic case management, and widespread citizen distrust of law enforcement. Such suspicions appear at times to be well founded. In June 2001, for example, 27 police officers were accused of being involved in kidnapping rings in Rio de Janeiro. The graft that seems to be endemic to Brazil's law enforcement institutions received a peculiar confirmation in July 2001, when a Rio police officer was awarded a free vacation at a mountain resort--for refusing a bribe.
The prison system in Brazil is anarchic, overcrowded, and largely unfit for human habitation, and human rights groups charge that the torture and other inhumane treatment common to most of the country's detention centers turns petty thieves into hardened criminals. Some 200,000 people are incarcerated in Brazil, nearly half of them in Sa Paulo. In 2001, 15 prisoners were killed in Sa Paulo's biggest-ever prison uprising, several apparently the victims of summary executions by police who were called in to restore order.
The press is privately owned. There are dozens of daily newspapers and numerous other publications throughout the country. The print media have played a central role in exposing official corruption. In recent years TV Globo's near monopoly on the broadcast media has been challenged by its rival, Sistema Brasiliero de Televisa (STB). In a negative development, on December 27, 2000, Cardoso promulgated a controversial law that aimed to shield public officials from slander by means of firing and fining public prosecutors who make charges that they cannot subsequently prove in court.
Large landowners control nearly 60 percent of arable land, while the poorest 30 percent share less than two percent. In rural areas, violence linked to land disputes is declining, but courts have increasingly supported the eviction of landless farmers. Thousands of workers are forced by ranchers in rural areas to work against their will and have no recourse to police or through the courts. Although casualties of rural violence appeared to decrease in the period 1998--2000, a total of 1,186 people--four times the number of casualties during the 1964--1985 military dictatorship--were killed between the return of democratic rule in 1985 and June 2000.
Brazil is a source country for victims of both domestic and international trafficking of human beings, the majority of whom are women and girls trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation to Europe, Japan, Israel, and the United States. Young men usually end up in the domestic agricultural labor market; however, they also have been trafficked as athletes to Europe. They frequently are subjected to humiliating conditions or coerced into other areas of exploitation, such as prostitution. Occasionally, women are employed as domestic servants in conditions tantamount to slavery. On a positive note, the government is making significant efforts to combat trafficking, despite resource constraints and a lack of coordination between the federal and state levels. However, in some cases, local corruption has hampered enforcement efforts. The government also actively investigates and prosecutes cases of trafficking and supports various programs to combat trafficking, including public information campaigns and an interministerial campaign against the sexual exploitation of minors.
In August 2001, the Brazilian congress approved a legal code that for the first time in the country's history makes women equal to men under the law. However, violence against women and children is a common problem. Protective laws are rarely enforced. In 1991 the supreme court ruled that a man could no longer kill his wife and win acquittal on the grounds of "legitimate defense of honor," but juries tend to ignore the ruling. Forced prostitution of children is widespread. Child labor is prevalent, and laws against it are rarely enforced. A recent UNICEF study reported that 53 percent of the 17.5 million children and young people forced to work in Latin America are in Brazil, and of these one million are less than ten years old.
In June 2001, a decree granted same-sex partners in Brazil the same rights as married couples with respect to pensions, social security benefits, and taxation.
Violence against Brazil's 250,000 Indians continues. However, in a positive development, in November 2001, four Brazilian teenagers from middle- to upper-class families who burned an Indian man to death were convicted of third-degree murder and each was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The 1988 constitution guarantees indigenous peoples land rights covering some 11 percent of the country, and by law outsiders can enter Indian reserves only with permission. However, the government has completed the demarcation and registration of only 187 of the 559 eligible Indian reservations. Court and administrative rulings have eroded indigenous land claims, putting a third of the promised territory in legal limbo. Decree 1775 has opened Indian land to greater pressure from predatory miners and loggers. In some remote areas, Colombian drug traffickers have been using Indians to transport narcotics. In 2001, the Brazilian Catholic Church said that Native Brazilians suffered from violence and persecution reminiscent of the country's colonialization. It also condemned the militarization of Indian lands, a federal government initiative meant to control remote frontiers, particularly in the Amazon basin.
Despite Brazil's priding itself on being a "racial democracy," less than 16 percent of university graduates are black, while no blacks hold posts as government ministers or supreme court judges. However, more than two-thirds of Brazil's poor are black or mixed-raced peoples. In a positive development, in 2001, Brazil--pressured during a UN conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa--began to adopt quotas and "affirmative action" programs designed to ameliorate discrimination felt by Afro-Brazilians and other minorities, an action that generated a nationwide debate about racial issues.
Industrial labor unions are well organized and politically connected; many are corrupt. The right to strike is recognized, and there are special labor courts. Hundreds of strikes have taken place in recent years against attempts to privatize state industries.