Freedom in the World
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In spite of the corruption scandals plaguing his administration since 2004 and stubbornly high crime rates in Brazil’s larger cities, President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva remained quite popular in 2007. His popularity was bolstered by his effective redistribution policies and the country’s overall macroeconomic stability. However, in spite of his congressional majority, da Silva did not advance necessary structural reforms in the tax, social security, and legal systems due to tensions between the fourteen progovernment parties as well as political maneuvering ahead of the midterm elections in late 2008.
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil retained a monarchical system until a republic was established in 1889. Democratic governance was interrupted by long periods of authoritarian rule, especially under the military regime that was in control from 1964 to 1985, after which elected civilian rule was reestablished. Democracy in Brazil then gradually took root, with peaceful transitions between democratically elected administrations. However, civilian rule has been marred by frequent corruption scandals. One scandal eventually led 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 for the fourth time in 2002, attacking the effects of globalization on the poor and Brazil’s high levels of foreign debt and unemployment. 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. He was able to maintain a stable economy while also preserving cordial relations with the United States, 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, the government announced that it did not need to renew a standby credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Da Silva maintained his campaign commitment to social welfare, initiating “Bolsa Familia,” a cash-transfer program that benefited approximately one-fourth of Brazil’s population, as well as “ProUni,” a fund providing scholarships for private colleges to low-income students. Da Silva also continued Brazil’s internationally recognized public health campaign; over the previous decade, it had stabilized the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, which affected an estimated 600,000 Brazilians.
Beginning in 2004, evidence of pervasive government corruption was uncovered, and successive corruption scandals continued to consume the legislative agenda and taint both the da Silva administration and Brazil’s global image in 2007. The highlights of the last several years include the vote-buying mensalão (monthly stipend) and the “bloodsucker” scandals, the latter of which involved government officials selling overpriced ambulances to municipalities.
Da Silva was reelected with a comfortable margin in the October 2006 presidential runoff, principally as a result of his popularity among working-class Brazilians. In spite of the fact that the legislature was widely seen as the most corrupt in Brazil’s history, the PT did not suffer electoral losses in Congress, and Lula continues to enjoy record popularity levels. Yet aside from an economic growth acceleration program (PAC) announced in January 2007, Lula has not advanced other structural reforms. Ongoing corruption scandals and tensions among the progovernment parties in the run-up to next year’s midterm elections eroded
Tellingly, 91 members of Congress whose terms ended in December 2006 were accused of corruption, but only 4 of them were expelled. The most recent corruption scandals involved public works payoffs and construction firms. A May 2007 undercover operation, codenamed “Operation Razor,” resulted in the arrest of 46 individuals for accepting kickbacks for public works contracts. Those arrested included several members of Congress as well as a former governor. Days later, one of da Silva’s cabinet members was forced to resign after a federal surveillance video captured him receiving a bribe from a major building contractor. Yet another scandal involved kickbacks to the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros of the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), one of da Silva’s most important allies. On December 4, 2007, Calheiros resigned his post as president, but retained his congressional seat.
In August 2007, the government released a 500-page report that outlined the fate of political opponents who were “disappeared” by the Brazilian military between 1961 and 1988. The report was the result of an 11-year investigation led by Brazil’s national Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances. Because Brazil, thanks to a 1979 amnesty law, has never tried those responsible for these atrocities, the report was viewed as a step toward political reconciliation.
Brazil is an electoral democracy. The October 2006 national elections were free and fair. The current constitution, which took 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. The next midterm elections will be held in October 2008.
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 PMDB, the leftist PT, the conservative Democratic Party (the former Liberal Front Party, or PFL, which changed its name in March 2007 in an attempt to update its image), 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 transparency. Corruption is a serious and seemingly growing problem in Brazil, which was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. 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. However, in March 2007, the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE) ruled that federal deputies who switched parties after election would have to give up their seats in Congress. If put into effect, the rule would ameliorate the decades-old problem of rampant party switching. The matter will likely be decided by the Supreme Court in 2008.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The press is privately owned, but foreigners can acquire only a 30 percent stake in 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. At the same time, reporters—especially those who focus on organized crime, corruption, or impunity issues—are frequently the targets of threats and occasionally even killings. The government does not impose restrictions on the use of the internet.
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 freer from political party control than those in most other Latin American countries. Labor-related issues are adjudicated in a system of special labor courts. Intimidation of rural labor union leaders continues to be a problem.
The country’s largely independent but weak judiciary 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, 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 public welfare system.
Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and the world’s highest death rate by firearms. The nation’s homicide rate was 23.8 per 100,000 residents, compared with 5.6 per 100,000 residents in the United States in 2006. Police say that most violent crime in the country is directly or indirectly related to the illegal drug trade. The highly organized and armed drug gangs frequently fight against the military police, as well as private militias comprising off-duty police officers, prison guards, and firefighters. These militias have instituted their own form of extortion, charging citizens a mandatory tax for ousting drug traffickers from their areas and intimidating human rights activists. It is reported that the militias now control 90 of Brazil’s 600 favelas, or shantytowns, adding to the violence and lawlessness that plague Brazil’s poor communities. In May 2006, Sao Paulo’s principal criminal gang launched several coordinated attacks against prison guards, banks, and public buses. The crime wave and resulting clash with police resulted in the deaths of an estimated 150 people and brought the city to a standstill. In December 2006, similar attacks struck Rio de Janeiro.
Brazil’s police are among the world’s most violent and corrupt, and the violence has only increased in recent years. According to official estimates, police in the state of Sao Paulo killed 328 people in the first half of 2006, an 84 percent increase from the same period in 2005.. An investigation by an independent committee found overwhelming evidence that many of the killings reported from the May 2006 attacks in Sao Paulo were in fact summary executions by the police. In the rare instances when police officers are indicted for such abuses, convictions are not obtained; typically the charges are dismissed for “lack of evidence.” Torture is used systematically to extract confessions from suspects, and extrajudicial killings are portrayed as shootouts with dangerous criminals. However, the National Committee for the Prevention and Control of Torture, which was created in June 2006, aims to address Brazil’s torture problem. The committee is tasked with designing mechanisms to minimize torture and inspecting detention centers.
The prison system in Brazil is anarchic, overcrowded, and largely unfit for human habitation. Over 400,000 people are incarcerated in Brazil, despite the official prison capacity of 234,000. 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.
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. Two controversial affirmative-action bills, which would introduce quotas for public universities and jobs, are currently being considered in Congress.
The owners of large estates control nearly 60 percent of the country’s arable land, while the poorest 30 percent of the population shares less than 2 percent. In rural areas, land invasions are organized by the grassroots Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), which claims that the seized land is unused or illegally held. However, many of the occupied properties are legally owned by others. The courts have increasingly supported the eviction of the squatters, and some owners have resisted invasions with force. The MST is not formally affiliated with the PT, but it has enjoyed some PT support.
Although Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the government in 2004 acknowledged that at least 25,000 Brazilians were working under “conditions analogous to slavery,” with other estimates putting the figure as high as 50,000. Landowners who enslave workers face two to eight years in prison, in addition to fines. However, the fines are minimal, and few if any of the modern-day slaveholders ever spend time in jail.
Beginning in 2003, the Brazilian government promised to demarcate wide swaths of ancestral lands as the first step in creating indigenous reserves. To date, 27 indigenous territories have yet to be formally demarcated, down from 134 in 2005. In response to strong political pressure, da Silva established a national Commission on Indigenous Policy in April 2007. Still, violence and discrimination against Brazil’s estimated indigenous population of 460,000 continues, and half of the indigenous population lives in poverty.
A June 2001 decree granted same-sex partners the same rights as married couples with respect to pensions, social security benefits, and taxation. While laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, violence against homosexuals remains a problem.
In January 2003, a legal code took effect that made women equal to men under the law for the first time in the country’s history. Moreover, the August 2006 “Maria da Penha” Law aimed to reduce violence against women by creating shelters and specially designed police centers for victims. 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—a 2007 International Labor Organization report revealed that there are three million child workers in Brazil—and laws against it are not applied effectively.
Brazil is a source for victims of both domestic and international human trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, Brazil does not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking, and prosecutions for forced labor remain deficient. However, significant progress was made in 2007. Convictions of trafficking offenders increased during the year, and in a November 2006 ruling, the Supreme Court increased the federal government’s ability to punish those who utilize or traffic in slave labor.