Freedom in the World
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Brazil received a downward trend arrow for increased political corruption, including the involvement of the governing party in many of the country’s most serious corruption scandals.
President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a second four-year term in a runoff election on October 29. He defeated Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) with over 60 percent of the vote. Da Silva had been expected to win outright in the first round of voting on October 1, aided by his popular “Bolsa Familia” income-support program, an increase in the minimum wage, and a stable economy. However, a last-minute scandal and worsening political corruption gave Alckmin a boost. Lula’s finance minister was forced to resign in March 2006 due to corruption allegations, and the current Congress is widely noted as one of the most corrupt in history, with a reported one in seven legislators a suspect in some crime involving corruption, embezzlement, or violence. The tensions resulting from a mudslinging campaign that fed on racial and class divisions are likely to complicate da Silva’s ability to implement needed economic reforms in his second term.
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, after which elected civilian rule was reestablished. Democracy in Brazil continues to take root, with peaceful transitions between democratically elected administrations. However, civilian rule has been marked by economic booms and busts and bouts of hyperinflation, as well as frequent corruption scandals. One scandal eventually led the Congress in 1992 to impeach President Fernando Collor de Mello, who had been elected in 1989.
In early 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, 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 his Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). Cardoso won the presidency in October of that year, and in 1995 he initiated the highly successful real plan —a currency-stabilization program that included fiscal reform, privatization of state enterprises, and a new currency pegged to the U.S. dollar. He also ushered in a new era of dialogue with international human rights and good-governance groups. His popular tenure in office allowed him to secure a constitutional amendment permitting presidential reelection. In 1998, Cardoso handily won a second term in a rematch against his 1994 opponent, former labor leader and political prisoner Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT).
Da Silva ran for president again in 2002, attacking the effects of globalization on the poor and the government’s economic record, which included $260 billion in foreign debt and stubborn unemployment levels that defied the country’s steady economic growth. However, he also abandoned his party’s previous anti–free market positions and its willingness to default on Brazil’s debt obligations. This less radical stance succeeded; da Silva received more votes than any presidential candidate in Brazilian history, beating Jose Serra, a center-left former PSDB health minister, 61 percent to 39 percent.
Amid high expectations as Brazil’s first leftist leader, da Silva began his presidential term in January 2003 by promising orthodox economic policies and meaningful social programs. With a mandate for change tempered by his coalition’s lack of a congressional majority, da Silva defied expectations by controlling inflation through fiscal discipline and strict monetary policies, which in turn boosted investor confidence and resulted in a $30 billion line of credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He also 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. In March 2005, in a move that signaled Brazil’s economic recovery, including record trade and budget surpluses, the government announced that it did not need to renew a standby credit agreement with the IMF. Da Silva maintained his commitment to social welfare programs, initiating “Bolsa Familia,” a cash-transfer program providing 11 million low-income families with a monthly $40 stipend, as well as “ProUni,” a fund providing scholarships for private colleges to low-income students. Lula has also continued Brazil’s internationally recognized public health campaign that over the last decade has stabilized the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic affecting an estimated 600,000 Brazilians.
Beginning in 2004, evidence of pervasive government corruption was uncovered, and successive corruption scandals continue to consume the legislative agenda and taint the da Silva administration as well as Brazil’s global image. The top two executives of the Brazilian Central Bank were accused of tax evasion and fraud in 2004, a claim that forced the second-ranking official to resign. The taint of corruption expanded to include da Silva’s health minister and his vice president. In 2005, high-ranking members of da Silva’s party were snarled in accusations that they had offered legislators millions of dollars in bribes, paid for party campaigns across the country with illegally obtained funds, and were engaged in kickback schemes involving public works. Finally, 2006 featured the so-called mensalao (“monthly stipend”) vote-buying scandal, witness intimidation and corruption allegations that forced the resignation of Finance Minister Antonio Palocci in March, and the revelation of a widespread corruption scheme involving government purchases of ambulances at inflated prices. The ambulance scandal allegedly involved 70 congressmen, dubbed the “sanguessugas” (“bloodsuckers”) by the press. The task of combating Brazil’s pervasive corruption is complicated by weak party loyalty and legal loopholes that allow those who resign from any public office to later seek reelection.
A heightened level of violence in 2006 was viewed by many Brazilians as part and parcel of the corruption in the political system, since graft severely limited the government’s ability to address difficult problems like rampant street crime, urban sprawl, and rural lawlessness. Drug- and gang-related violence in several major Brazilian cities, most notably Rio de Janeiro, was fueled by the high volume of cocaine and its cheaper derivatives that was consumed locally. Beginning on May 12, Sao Paulo’s principal criminal gang orchestrated five days of violence from within the prison system that hit Sao Paulo as well as nearby towns. The crime wave, which included burned buses, bank robberies, and prison rebellions, resulted in the deaths of 138 people.
In the run-up to the October 1, 2006, general elections, a last-minute scandal involving a foiled plot by PT operatives to smear a leading opposition politician led to an upsurge of anger against the da Silva administration, forcing the president into a second round of voting. However, he was reelected with a comfortable margin in the October 29 runoff, principally as a result of his popularity among working-class Brazilians. Da Silva won 77 percent of the vote in the Northeast, his birthplace and home to darker-skinned, poorer Brazilians who benefited from the government’s cash-transfer program. In contrast, his opponent, the PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin, beat da Silva 53 percent to 47 percent in the more prosperous and educated southern region. In spite of the fact that the outgoing legislature was widely seen as the most corrupt in history, the PT did not suffer electoral losses in Congress. In the October elections, the party gained 2 seats in the 513-seat lower house, giving it a new total of 83. Interestingly, former president Fernando Collor de Mello, who was forced to resign in 1992 due to corruption charges and banned from any office for eight years, won a Senate seat representing the poor, sugar-producing state of Alagoas.
Brazil is an electoral democracy. The October 2006 national elections were free and fair. The current 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 National Congress. The Senate’s 81 members serve eight-year terms, with a portion coming up for election every four years, and the 513-member Chamber of Deputies is elected for four years. A constitutional amendment adopted in 1997 permits presidential reelection, which supporters said would enhance presidential accountability.
In the wake of the 2006 elections, the four largest Brazilian political parties, comprising 70 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and over half of the Senate seats, are the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), the leftist PT, the center-right Liberal Front Party (PFL), and the center-left PSDB. Fourteen other parties are also represented in Congress.
Despite a constitutional right of access to public information, Brazil does not have specific laws to regulate and guarantee the transparency provided for in the constitution. Corruption remains a serious problem in Brazil, which was ranked 70 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. Brazil’s system of “presidential coalitionism,” in which the president must create majorities from a fragmented Congress, serves to worsen corruption, as bribery is one of the few ways to garner political support. Political corruption cases that began in 2004 continued through 2006, with a scandal erupting in September involving PT party workers paying $800 million for a dossier smearing José Serra, the PSDB candidate for governor of the state of Sao Paulo.
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. The print media have played a central role in exposing official corruption. Journalists uncovered the 2005 cash-for-votes scheme in Congress that forced the resignation of several PT officials. At the same time, reporters, especially those who focus on organized crime, corruption, or impunity issues, are frequently the targets of threats, assaults, and occasionally even killings. The government does not impose restrictions on the use of the internet, although federal and state police have begun to monitor it to detect online recruitment by sex traffickers and scrutinize the activities of hate groups.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The rights of freedom of association and assembly are generally respected, as is the right to strike. Industrial labor unions are well organized. Although they are politically connected, unions in Brazil tend to be more free of political party control than those in most other Latin American countries. Labor-related issues are adjudicated in a system of special labor courts.
Few Brazilians have not been affected by violent crime, and in 2006, the country’s criminal justice system still appeared on the verge of collapse due to its inability to effectively reign in crime, even as the police conducted military-style raids against drug traffickers in the hills of Rio de Janeiro. The climate of lawlessness is reinforced by a largely independent but weak judiciary, which is overburdened, plagued by chronic corruption, and virtually powerless in the face of organized crime. Because the judiciary uses its independence above all to resist change and stop outside investigations of judicial corruption, there has been less progress in judicial reform in Brazil 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 and expensive public welfare system.
Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and the world’s highest death rate by firearms. The latest homicide statistics from 2005 show that the city of Rio de Janeiro and outlying areas have a homicide rate of 62 per 100,000 residents annually (compared to the homicide rate in the United States for that year, which was 5.6 per 100,000 residents). Police say that most violent crime in the country, perhaps as much as 70 to 80 percent, including most of the 37,000 annual murders, is directly or indirectly related to the illegal drug trade. An estimated 200,000 Brazilians are employed in the illegal narcotics trade, 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. Torture is used systematically to extract confessions from prisoners, and extrajudicial killings are portrayed as shootouts with dangerous criminals. Death squads, often composed of off-duty state police, terrorize shantytown dwellers and intimidate human rights activists attempting to investigate abuses. After the May 2006 riots, allegations emerged that many of the deaths were in fact summary executions by the police and that several victims were innocent bystanders. 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.”
The prison system in Brazil is anarchic, overcrowded, and largely unfit for human habitation. 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 President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva during his first term. Blacks in Brazil earn less than 50 percent of the average earnings of other citizens, and they suffer from the highest homicide, poverty, and illiteracy rates. In a precedent-setting series of actions, da Silva upon taking office 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 federal employees within five years. A racial quota law, currently under consideration in Congress, would institute a system of racial preferences for the civil service, universities, and the private sector. While supporters of the bill argue that racial quotas are needed to create social unity, critics maintain that the quotas would only heighten racial tensions while failing to effectively address the inequality problem.
Large landowners control nearly 60 percent of the country’s arable land, while the poorest 30 percent of the population share less than 2 percent. In rural areas, land invasions are organized by the grassroots Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), which claims that the invaded lands are unused or illegally held. However, many of the occupied properties are legally owned by others. The courts have increasingly supported the eviction of such squatters, and some owners have resisted the invasions with force. The MST is not formally affiliated with the PT, but has enjoyed some PT support.
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. Landowners who enslave workers face two to eight years in prison, in addition to fines. However, fines are minimal, and few if any of the modern-day slaveholders ever spend time in jail.
Violence against Brazil’s estimated 400,000 indigenous people mirrors generalized rural lawlessness. A decree issued in 1996 by then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso opened Indian land to greater pressure from predatory miners and loggers. In some remote areas, Colombian drug traffickers have used 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. To date, 12.5 percent of Brazil’s territory has been set aside for Brazil’s indigenous populations; however, the vast majority of the reserves are located in remote areas not inhabited by the beneficiary population. The result has been violent land wars between Indians and ranchers, companies, and farmers, which contributed to a 10-year high in indigenous murder rates in 2006. Suicide is common among Indian youths.
In June 2001, a decree granted same-sex partners the same rights as married couples with respect to pensions, social security benefits, and taxation.
In August 2001, Congress approved a legal code that for the first time in the country’s history made women equal to men under the law. In January 2003, the same code took effect, formally replacing a 1916 text that contained myriad discriminatory 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 also prevalent—an estimated 12.2 percent of children between 5 and 12 years of age had to work in 2005, up from 11.8 percent in 2004—and laws against it are rarely enforced. Brazil is a source for victims of both domestic and international trafficking of human beings, the majority of whom are women and girls.