Freedom in the World
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In October 2004, President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's Worker's Party (PT) expanded its sphere of influence and consolidated its power in nationwide municipal elections. However, the PT's losses of the powerhouse Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre mayoralties meant that da Silva, a former labor leader and political prisoner, ultimately was denied the boost in political capital that would have helped push through his legislative agenda and better position him for a run for reelection in 2006. Festering corruption scandals, a slow economic recovery, and high levels of violence in many of the country's urban and rural districts further dampened the president's popularity.
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil retained a monarchical system until a republic was established in 1889. Democratic governance has been interrupted by long periods of authoritarian rule, most recently under the military regime that was in control from 1964 to 1985, when elected civilian rule was reestablished.
Civilian rule has been marked by frequent corruption scandals. The scandal with the greatest political impact eventually led the Congress to impeach President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was elected in 1989 and removed from office in 1992.
In early 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former socialist and critic of capitalist development who became a market-oriented, centrist finance minister in the interim government that followed Collor de Mello's resignation, forged a three-party, center-right coalition around Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). In October 1994, Cardoso won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote, against 27 percent for da Silva, the leader of the leftist PT and an early front-runner. However, Cardoso's coalition did not have a majority in either house of the Congress.
Cardoso embarked on an ambitious plan of free-market reforms, including deep cuts in the public sector and massive privatizations of state enterprises. He also ushered in a new era of dialogue with international human rights organizations and good government groups. These measures were popular enough that Cardoso sought, and obtained, a constitutional amendment permitting presidential reelection.
In 1998, Cardoso's first-ballot reelection 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 PSDB's legacy of reform was further tarnished by a 2001 energy crisis, which drove a wedge between it and its fractious coalition partners, although the causes of the crisis went beyond the critics' allegations of lack of government foresight and managerial talent.
Already faced with rampant street crime, urban sprawl, rural lawlessness, and the devastation of the Amazon basin, Brazilians increasingly voiced concerns that political corruption severely limited the government's ability to address difficult problems. At the same time, 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 derivatives consumed locally. For some years a transshipment country for cocaine produced in the Andean region, Brazil had become the world's second-largest consumer of the illegal drug after the United States by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
During the 2002 presidential 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 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 Brazil's foreign debt. After far outdistancing his rivals in a first-round ballot on October 6, da Silva received 52.5 million votes in the runoff election held three weeks later, besting Jose Serra, a center-left former PSDB health minister, 61 to 39 percent. The PT, however, won fewer than 20 percent of the seats in both houses of Congress, while all important governorships in the 5 largest of Brazil's 27 states were won by other parties.
On January 1, 2003, da Silva was inaugurated as president of Brazil, breaking an historic monopoly on power by members of a small southern elite, military rulers, and local political bosses in a country with one of the worst income distributions in the world and 50 million people living in poverty. After taking office, da Silva focused throughout the year on tackling the country's economic crisis, including the huge foreign debt; corruption; and racial inequality. With a mandate for change conditioned by his coalition's lack of a congressional majority, da Silva defied expectations by controlling inflation through fiscal discipline and tight monetary policies, which in turn boosted investor confidence and resulted in a $30 billion credit line from the IMF. He also instituted anticorruption measures, maintained cordial relations with the United States despite his independent foreign policy, and quickly established himself as one of the world's foremost voices for developing nations. As part of this effort, the country stepped up its campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Brazil's progress, however, was marred by frequent police abuses, including torture and murder, and marked increases in the use of narcotics and their illegal sale by heavily armed gangs.
In 2004, the top two executives of the Brazilian Central Bank were accused of tax evasion and fraud, a claim that forced the No. 2 official to resign. The air of scandal grew to include da Silva's health minister and his vice president, the latter of whom was accused by a federal prosecutor of stock manipulation.
The October 2004 municipal elections saw the PT win in nearly 400 cities, double the number it won four years earlier, including in rural areas where the party has been weakest. The victories were overshadowed by the losses in the party strongholds of Sao Paulo, which with 10 million people is South America's largest city, and Porto Alegre, where it had ruled for 16 years. The victor in the Sao Paulo mayoral contest was former presidential candidate Jose Serra, whose centrist PSDB also won a total of five state capitals. The anemic PT victory portended continued problems for da Silva's legislative agenda at a time when observers said he needed to stimulate greater economic growth, as well as to overhaul antiquated labor laws and excessively high taxes that form part of the so-called Brazilian cost - those expenses to business that make the country less attractive to foreign investors.
In the international arena, da Silva won continued respect on Wall Street for his government's tight fiscal policies, even while he maintained his crusade against what he called U.S. and European protectionism.
Citizens of Brazil can change their government democratically, and the October 2004 municipal elections were free and fair. A new constitution, which went into effect in 1985 and was heavily amended 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 513-member Chamber of Deputies elected for four years. A constitutional amendment adopted in 1997 permits presidential reelection, a measure that was touted as enhancing presidential accountability. Despite a constitutionally proclaimed right to access to public information, Brazil does not have specific laws to regulate and guarantee the principle of transparency provided for in the constitution.
Corruption remains a serious problem in Brazil, which was ranked 59 out of 144 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The press is privately owned, but foreigners can acquire only a 30 percent share of a media company and are restricted in their ability to influence editorial decisions or management selection. There are dozens of daily newspapers and numerous other publications throughout the country. In recent years, TV Globo's near-monopoly over the broadcast media has been challenged by its rival, Sistema Brasileiro de Televisao (STB). The print media have played a central role in exposing official corruption. At the same time, reporters are frequently the target of threats, assaults, and occasionally even killings, especially those who focus on organized crime, corruption, or impunity issues. In 2004, a proposal floated by the government-allied National Federation of Journalists sought to regulate who could work as a journalist, but the measure was the object of heated criticism from free speech advocates and even members of da Silva's own party. Earlier, the government had threatened to expel a New York Times reporter over an article alleging heavy drinking by the president, but it later withdrew the threat. Although the government does not impose restrictions on the use of the Internet, federal and state police have begun to monitor the Internet to detect online recruitment by sex traffickers and to check on the activities of hate groups.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Evangelical Christian communities have grown significantly in recent years, from 9 percent of the population in 1991 to 15 percent in 2000. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The right to organize political parties and civic organizations is recognized, as is the right to strike. Industrial labor unions are well organized and politically connected, although they are more autonomous of political party control than is true in most other Latin American countries. There are special labor courts. Hundreds of strikes have taken place in recent years against attempts to privatize state industries.
The climate of lawlessness is reinforced by a weak judiciary, which, though largely independent of the executive branch, is overtaxed, plagued by chronic corruption, and virtually powerless in the face of organized crime. Because the judiciary uses its independence above all to resist reforms and stop outside investigations of judicial corruption, judicial reform has progressed less than in any other large country of the region. In addition, judges regularly employ legal formalisms to overturn government modernization efforts, including those aimed at privatizing state-owned industries and reforming the ineffective but expensive system of public welfare. Public distrust of the judiciary and ineffective policing in the neighborhoods has resulted in poor citizens taking the law into their own hands, with hundreds of reported lynchings.
Recently, however, some judicial improvements have been made. The National Coordination for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, made up of government officials and civil society representatives, was established in 2003, and in 2004 it put into place a telephone hotline service that people can use to report rights abuses. In 2004, da Silva created the new position of secretary for judicial reform within the Ministry of Justice in hopes of providing fresh impetus to reform proposals that have languished in the congress for over a decade. The government was also on its way to signing judicial cooperation agreements with dozens of countries as part of an effort to fight corruption, including drug-money laundering. In addition, a bill was approved by the Senate that would amend the constitution to establish the principle of binding precedent for high court decisions and allow for external control of the judiciary. The national security law permitting the shooting down by the air force of aircraft suspected of being involved in the drug trade went into effect on October 17; only neighboring Colombia has a similar law in the region.
Brazil has the highest rate of homicide caused by firearms of any country not at war - more than 70 percent. Police say that most violent crime in the country, perhaps as much as 70 to 80 percent, is directly or indirectly related 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 various drug-trafficking groups in Rio de Janeiro alone. 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.
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. "Death squads" operating in at least 15 of Brazil's 26 states, often composed of off-duty state police, terrorize shantytown dwellers and intimidate human rights activists attempting to investigate abuses. In the rare instances when police officers are indicted for such abuses, convictions are not obtained; typically such indictments are dismissed for "lack of evidence." In May, Brazilian human rights secretary Nilmario Miranda admitted that an Amnesty International report accusing the police of torturing and killing thousands the previous year "reflects the truth." 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 turn petty thieves into hardened criminals. Some 200,000 people are incarcerated in Brazil, nearly half of them in Sao Paulo.
Racial discrimination, long officially denied as a problem in Brazil, began to receive both recognition and remediation from the da Silva government. Afro-Brazilians earn more than 50 percent less than other citizens, and on average, Afro-Brazilian university graduates earn less than others with only high school diplomas. In a precedent-setting series of actions, upon taking office da Silva named four Afro-Brazilians to his cabinet, appointed the country's first Afro-Brazilian Supreme Court justice, and pressed for the adoption of a Racial Equality Statute to redeem his pledge that Afro-Brazilians would make up at least one-third of the federal government within five years.
Large landowners control nearly 60 percent of the country's arable land, while the poorest 30 percent share less than 2 percent. In rural areas, violence linked to land invasions organized by the MST, the landless peasants' movement, continues to be a sporadic problem; courts have increasingly supported the eviction of such land invaders. Although Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, in 2004 the government acknowledged that at least 25,000 Brazilians work under "conditions analogous to slavery," with other estimates putting that figure as high as 50,000. Many slaves work in the forest industry in the state of Para. Landowners who enslave workers face two to eight years in prison, in addition to fines. However, the latter are minimal and few, if any, of the modern-day slavers ever spend a day in jail.
Violence against Brazil's 250,000 Indians mirrors generalized rural lawlessness. A decree issued by former president 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. In September 2003, the new head of Brazil's Indian agency promised that the government was serious about demarcating wide swaths of ancestral lands as the first step in converting the land into indigenous reserves. Suicide is common among Indian youths. In April 2004, members of the Cinta-Larga tribe were blamed for killing 29 diamond prospectors who were illegally trespassing on their lands in the state of Rondonia. The former head of the country's indigenous affairs agency, Apoena Meireles, was murdered by unknown assailants in the city of Porto Velho.
In August 2001, Congress approved a legal code that for the first time in the country's history makes women equal to men under the law. In January 2003, a new civil code took effect, formally replacing a 1916 text that contained myriad sexist provisions concerning social behavior in government, in business, and at home; the new code gave women the same rights in marriage as men. Nevertheless, violence against women and children is a common problem, and 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 the same rights as married couples with respect to pensions, social security benefits, and taxation. Brazil is a source country for victims of both domestic and international trafficking of human beings, the majority of whom are women and girls. Occasionally, women are employed as domestic servants in conditions tantamount to slavery.