Brazil | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Brazil's political rights rating improved from 3 to 2, and its status from Partly Free to Free, due to the holding of free and fair elections in which an opposition presidential candidate of a markedly different ideology from the ruling coalition was elected.


In October 2002, former leftist anti-dictatorial firebrand and political prisoner Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, "the Lech Walesa of Brazil," overwhelmingly won the Brazilian presidency on his fourth try, as his country leaned leftward in a search for economic security and a respite from crime, including rampant political corruption. The victory of the onetime leader of the metalworkers union marked a sea change in the political landscape of Latin America's largest economy and the world's fourth most populous democracy, as well as in the economically troubled South American region. Da Silva's election broke a historic monopoly on power by a small southern elite, military rulers, and local political bosses in a country with one of the worse income distributions in the world and 50 million people living in poverty. Although da Silva's win transcended regional and class distinctions, his mandate for change was nonetheless conditioned on his coalition's lack of a parliamentary majority; on winning acceptance from Wall Street; and on a $30 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that set stringent conditions on future spending.

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 to 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 with the greatest political impact eventually led to the impeachment, by congress, of President Fernando Collor de Mello, in office from 1989 to 1992. Collor resigned and was replaced by a weak, ineffectual government led by his vice president, Itamar Franco.

In early 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former Marxist who was Franco's finance minister and is a market-oriented centrist, forged a three-party, center-right coalition around Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Cardoso's "Plan Real" stabilized Brazil's currency and gave Brazilian wage earners greater purchasing power. In October 1994 Cardoso won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote, against 27 percent for da Silva, the leader of the leftist Workers' Party (PT) and an early front-runner. However, Cardoso's coalition did not have a majority in either house of congress.

Cardoso embarked upon an ambitious plan of free market reforms, including deep cuts in the public sector and mass privatizations of state enterprises. He also ushered in a new era of dialogue with international human rights organizations and good-government groups. At the same time, a radicalized group 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 da Silva, his nearest rival, was tempered somewhat by a less convincing win at the congressional and gubernatorial levels. His win was also overshadowed by published accounts of corruption among senior government officials. 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.

In September 2000, a congressional committee probing organized crime and drug trafficking released an explosive report implicating nearly 200 officials in 17 of Brazil's 27 states. In 2001 the ruling PSDB's legacy of reform was badly tarnished by an energy crisis and a growing number of accusations of corruption at senior levels. The energy crisis, in particular, seemed to drive a wedge between the PSDB and its fractious coalition partners, although causes of the crisis went beyond an alleged lack of government foresight and managerial talent.

Faced with rampant street crime, urban sprawl, rural lawlessness, and the devastation of the Amazon basin, Brazilians also increasingly voiced concerns that political corruption severely limited the government's ability to address difficult problems. 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. Violence in several major Brazilian cities, most notably Rio de Janeiro, involving rival drug gangs and the sometimes outgunned police was fueled by the volume of cocaine and its cheaper derivates consumed locally.

During the 2002 campaign, as the economy staggered under the weight of some $260 billion in foreign debt, unemployment soared and the country's currency lost more than 40 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Da Silva, 57, campaigned by attacking both the government's economic record and the effects of globalization while abandoning his party's previous anti-free market stands and its willingness to default on its foreign debt. After far outdistancing his rivals in a first-round ballot on October 6, in the runoff election held three weeks later da Silva received 52.5 million votes, besting Jose Serra, a center-left former PSDB health minister and Princeton University alumnus, 61 to 39 percent.

At the end of 2002, da Silva appeared to reach out to parties outside his coalition for support and met with Cardoso to ensure a smooth transition. His apparent moderation reflected some stark political realities. Economic hardship limited the new president's ability to use financial incentives to attract potential political partners. The Workers' Party won fewer than 20 percent of the seats in both houses of the Brazilian congress, while all important governorships in the 5 largest of Brazil's 27 states were won by other parties. Meanwhile, congress was poised to grant full autonomy to the Central Bank, which would limit da Silva's control over economic policy. Also, it had approved legislation that severely restricts da Silva's powers to issue decrees in the face of congressional opposition, as Cardoso frequently had.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government through elections. The 2002 elections, in which the entire 513-seat congress and two-thirds of the 81-seat Senate were renewed, were free, fair, and the cleanest ever, as a result of a new electronic voting system. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the right to organize political and civic organizations.

Brazil has the highest rate of homicides caused by firearms of 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. 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. A UN-sponsored study conduced in 2002 showed that 6,000 children or adolescents between 10 and 18 were armed as "soldiers" in the war between Rio's drug traffickers--with nearly 4,000 of these killed during a 13-year period.

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 June 2002, the Brazilian justice minister charged that organized crime had created "a parallel state" throughout the country. During each of the October elections, thousands of federal troops were deployed in Rio de Janeiro state after drug lords threatened to disrupt the polls. That same month, police uncovered a plot by organized crime to blow up the Sao Paulo Stock Exchange with a car bomb.

The climate of lawlessness is reinforced by a weak judiciary, which is overtaxed, plagued by chronic corruption, and virtually powerless in the face of organized crime, 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 police are among the world's most violent and corrupt, and they systematically resort to torture to extract confessions from prisoners. 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. Police are often grossly underpaid in the lower ranks, and in most states, salaries start at the minimum wage level of $72 a month. Working conditions are poor. There are some 1.3 million private security guards in Brazil, more than twice the number of police serving the country's 27 states.

The prison system in Brazil is anarchic, overcrowded, and largely unfit for human habitation, and human rights groups charge that 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 Sao Paulo.

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 Televisao (STB). On June 2, 2002, Tim Lopes, a TV Globo reporter who was investigating allegations of drug trafficking and sexual exploitation in a Rio slum, was tortured and dismembered by area drug dealers.

Large landowners control nearly 60 percent of arable land, while the poorest 30 percent share less than 2 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 the courts.

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. Occasionally, women are employed as domestic servants in conditions tantamount to slavery.

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. Forced prostitution of children is widespread. Child labor is prevalent, and laws against it are rarely enforced. 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 mirrors generalized rural lawlessness. A decree issued by Cardoso 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.

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.