Brazil | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
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Partly Free
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Rising inflation, Brazil’s worst economic recession in 25 years, and allegations of official corruption battered President Dilma Rousseff’s administration in 2015, leading to large but mostly peaceful protests and sustained public pressure for the president to resign less than a year into her second term. Opposition parties requested her impeachment over revelations that she had manipulated the government’s accounts to disguise deficit spending, and the impeachment process was expected to begin in early 2016. Rousseff’s credibility was further weakened by a major tax-related corruption scandal involving dozens of companies, including some branches of large international corporations.

Most damaging for the president was a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal at Petrobrás, the state-controlled oil company, in which money was allegedly funneled to members of her Workers’ Party (PT) and other politicians. The sheer size and duration of the alleged scheme was unprecedented: More than 100 people were arrested, including former Petrobrás executives, and 32 sitting members of Congress—most of them part of the ruling coalition—were under investigation for suspected involvement at year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 33 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12     

Brazil is a federal republic governed under a presidential system. Elections are generally free and fair. The president is elected by popular vote for a four-year term and is eligible for reelection to a second term. President Rousseff, the incumbent, won the October 2014 election by a slim margin, taking 51.6 percent of the vote in a runoff against Aécio Neves of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), who received 48.4 percent.

The bicameral National Congress is composed of an 81-member Senate and a 513-member Chamber of Deputies. Senators serve staggered eight-year terms, with one- to two-thirds coming up for election every four years. Members of the Chamber of Deputies serve four-year terms. In the October 2014 legislative elections, the PT remained the largest party in the lower house with 70 deputies, followed by the centrist, PT-allied Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) with 66 seats, and the opposition PSDB with 54 seats. The PMDB maintained its lead in the Senate, with 18 seats, while the PT held 12 seats and the PSDB held 10. Numerous smaller parties made up the remainder.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 14 / 16

Brazil has an unfettered multiparty system marked by vigorous competition between rival parties. The electoral framework encourages the proliferation of parties, a number of which are based in a single state. Some parties display little ideological consistency; the sheer number of parties means that the executive branch must piece together diverse coalitions to pass legislation, which may encourage corruption. Although the PT has been in power since 2003, no single force has been able to dominate the executive and both legislative branches in recent years. The PMDB, to which Vice President Michel Temer belongs, remained allied with the ruling PT as of the end of 2015, but showed an inclination toward leaving the governing coalition in order to field its own candidate in the 2018 elections.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision outlawed switching parties after elections, though lawmakers have continued to change on occasion for financial and other inducements. For example, Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and a member of the PMDB,  announced in 2015 that he would switch to the opposition.

Afro-Brazilians remain underrepresented in politics. The Senate has one self-identified black representative, and only one of Rousseff’s cabinet members is black.


C. Functioning of Government: 8 / 12

In spite of the Rousseff administration’s professed intolerance of corruption, graft remains endemic in Brazil, especially among elected officials, undermining their ability to make and implement policy without undue influence from private or criminal interests.

In March 2015, prosecutors announced a corruption case in which major companies allegedly paid bribes to Brazil’s tax authorities in exchange for reducing their liabilities in tax disputes. Officials revealed that over the past 15 years, the government had been cheated out of $6.1 billion in taxes and fines; 74 companies, including Ford Motor Brazil and the Brazilian unit of the Spanish bank Banco Santander SA, were under investigation along with 24 unnamed individuals at year’s end.

In October 2015, the country’s federal accounts court ruled that Rousseff had doctored government accounts in 2014 to hide a growing fiscal deficit prior to that year’s elections, in violation of the Fiscal Responsibility Law. Brazil’s electoral court also gave instructions in October to investigate other possible illegalities in Rousseff’s 2014 presidential campaign. In December, Cunha, who was himself under investigation for corruption, agreed to begin impeachment proceedings against Rousseff. However, just days later, Brazil’s Supreme Court disbanded the committee that had been formed to lead the impeachment process, forcing the opposition to start from scratch. The impeachment effort was expected to begin again in early 2016.

Also in 2015, Brazil was rocked by a major scandal involving the state-controlled oil company, Petrobrás. For at least the last decade, some of the country’s largest construction companies paid billions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to politicians, political parties, and Petrobrás executives in order to land lucrative contracts with the oil producer at inflated prices. The investigation produced more than 100 arrests and over 30 convictions, with charges filed against Cunha, senator and former president Fernando Collor, and José Dirceu, former president Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva’s chief of staff between 2003 and 2005. Rousseff, who had served as head of Petrobrás’s board when much of the alleged corruption took place, was cleared of any wrongdoing by a parliamentary commission in October 2015, though some observers expressed doubt that she could have been unaware of the schemes.

Brazil was ranked 76 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Brazil is a cofounder of the Open Government Partnership, a multinational organization seeking to increase governmental transparency and democratic ideals while decreasing corruption. As part of its pledge to support these goals, Brazil enacted an Access to Information Law in 2012.


Civil Liberties: 48 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but politicians and influential businessmen continued to make use of existing laws to curtail critical reporting in 2015. Defamation, for example, remains a crime and carries a minimum sentence of three months in prison. A Brazilian blogger, Paulo Cezar de Andrade Prado, was imprisoned for more than four months in 2015 based on a 2014 defamation verdict.

Journalists, especially those who focus on organized crime or corruption, are frequently subjected to violence; at least 20 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work since 2011, including six in 2015 alone. On a positive note, two separate juries convicted Alessandro Neves Augusto for the 2013 murders of two journalists, Gleydson Carvalho and Rodrigo Neto; he was sentenced to 14 years and 3 months for Carvalho’s killing and 16 years for Neto’s murder. Neto had covered police corruption and received death threats in response to his work, while Carvalho was reportedly killed to suppress information he said he had about Neto’s death.

The news media are privately owned, and there are dozens of independent papers and broadcast stations across the country. Financial dependence on state advertising, however, sometimes renders the press vulnerable to manipulation.

Brazil has been praised as a champion of internet user rights. The 2014 Marco Civil da Internet, a so-called bill of rights for the internet, guarantees universal internet access and establishes strong privacy protections for Brazilian users.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Academic freedom and private discussion are likewise unrestricted.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 10 / 12

Freedom of assembly is generally respected. However, in October 2015, a protester in Recife was shot at close range with a rubber bullet after inadvertently knocking an officer’s hat off; the officer was suspended pending an investigation. A series of largely peaceful protests erupted in early 2015 in the wake of revelations about the Petrobrás bribery scandal. On March 15, about 1 million people took to the streets to protest corruption and the country’s economic problems, and to call for Rousseff’s impeachment. Additional major protests were held in April and August, with the latter attracting demonstrators in some 200 cities across the country.

There are no significant restrictions on freedom of association, and nongovernmental organizations are able to operate in a variety of fields. Industrial labor unions are well organized, and although they are politically connected, Brazilian unions tend to be freer from political party control than their counterparts in other Latin American countries. Labor issues are adjudicated in a system of special labor courts. Officials and employers sometimes engage in antiunion activity, including dismissal of organizers, and a number of labor activists have been threatened or murdered in recent years, particularly in rural areas. An estimated 200 people were injured in a May 2015 teachers’ protest in the city of Curitiba as demonstrators opposed to pension changes attempted to break through police lines surrounding the state assembly.


F. Rule of Law: 10 / 16

The judiciary, though largely independent, is overburdened, inefficient, and often subject to intimidation and other external influences, especially in rural areas. Access to justice also varies greatly due to Brazil’s high level of income inequality. Despite these shortcomings, the country’s progressive constitution has resulted in an active judiciary that often rules in favor of citizens over the state. In May 2015, Congress amended the constitution to increase the age at which judges on higher federal courts must retire from 70 to 75. While proponents noted that this would help protect the country’s strained pension system, critics argued that the move was political in nature, meant to deprive President Rousseff of five Supreme Court nominations she had expected to make before the end of her term.

Brazil has had a relatively steady annual homicide rate of about 26 per 100,000 residents in recent years, compared with a global average of less than 7 per 100,000. This high level of violence is perpetuated by impunity and corruption, as well as the illegal drug trade. Highly organized and well-armed drug gangs frequently clash with military police or with private militias comprising off-duty police officers, prison guards, and firefighters. In recent years, violence has decreased in the larger and more affluent cities, but increased in Brazil’s poorer northeastern regions.

Brazil’s police force remains mired in corruption and violence, and was responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 people in 2014 alone. The victims are predominantly young and black, and can often be bystanders caught in crossfire between police and suspected gang members. Torture is used systematically to extract confessions from suspects, and extrajudicial killings are portrayed as shootouts with dangerous criminals. Police officers are rarely prosecuted for abuses, and those charged are almost never convicted. The long-term presence of special Pacifying Police Units (UPP) has apparently reduced crime in several urban favelas, or slums, though allegations of excessive or extrajudicial violence by the UPP continued to raise concerns about their tactics in 2015.

A 2013 law created a watchdog body known as the National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture. It consists of 11 experts with unprecedented power to visit any civilian or military facility where torture or ill-treatment has been documented. Despite this positive step, torture remained a serious problem in 2015. Brazilian law does not require that detainees be brought before a judge promptly after arrest, which increases opportunities for abuse in custody.

Brazil’s prison system—which is known for its appalling living conditions—held an estimated 600,000 inmates in 2015, or around 200,000 more prisoners than its intended capacity. The country’s prison population increased by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012, due principally to an increase in drug arrests. Forty percent of inmates in Brazil’s prisons are awaiting trial, and they are often held with those convicted of crimes, in violation of international law. Pretrial detention can last for months or even years, as a chronic backlog in court cases routinely results in substantial trial delays. In July 2015, Brazil’s lower house passed an amendment that will allow 16-year-olds to be tried as adults in cases of rape, murder, and assault; the bill was awaiting Senate approval at year’s end.

In December 2014, Brazil’s National Truth Commission released its report on human rights abuses committed during the country’s military regime between 1964 and 1985. While the commission had no enforcement powers, it recommended repealing a 1979 amnesty and punishing those responsible for the crimes.

Brazilian law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability, or social status, but the country continues to struggle with racial discrimination. Just over half of Brazil’s population identify themselves as black or of mixed race. However, Afro-Brazilians suffer from higher rates of homicide, poverty, and illiteracy; almost 70 percent of Brazilians living in extreme poverty are black. Government policies that have begun to change these patterns include the 2010 Statute of Racial Equality, which granted land rights to inhabitants of quilombos—communities of descendants of escaped slaves. A 2012 affirmative action law requires public universities to reserve 50 percent of admission spots for students coming from public schools, most of whom are poor, and dictates that the number of students of African descent must increase in accordance with the racial composition of each state. In 2014, Congress passed a law requiring that at least 20 percent of its civil service employees be of African descent.

Indigenous peoples make up less than 1 percent of the population. Many indigenous communities suffer from poverty and lack adequate sanitation and education services. Unresolved and often violent land disputes between indigenous communities and farmers continued in 2015, as the latter frequently refused to vacate land that the constitution has demarcated for indigenous use. In the face of court cases that further delay already lengthy procedures, tribes occasionally resorted to forcible removal of those inhabiting their protected lands. However, in June, federal prosecutors told authorities to refrain from evicting an estimated 2,000 families—many of them indigenous—who live in an area of the Amazon where the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam is being constructed.

Although Brazil has a largely tolerant society, it reportedly has one of the world’s highest levels of violence against members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. According to Grupo Gay da Bahia, a Brazilian LGBT advocacy group, there were at least 317 murders of LGBT people in Brazil in 2014.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 13 / 16

Brazilians enjoy freedom to travel within and outside of the country, and to make decisions about their places of residence and employment. Property rights are enforced, though requirements for starting new businesses are often onerous, and corruption and organized crime sometimes pose obstacles to private business activity.

A 2003 update to the legal code granted women rights equal to those of men for the first time in the country’s history. In 2013, Congress approved a constitutional amendment extending equal labor rights to household workers, many of whom are women. President Rousseff has pledged to make women’s rights a priority for her government, and appointed a number of women to each of her cabinets, though their representation has dwindled since Rousseff first took office. Women hold fewer than 10 percent of Chamber of Deputies seats, compared with 16 percent in the Senate.  

Each state has a special force dedicated to addressing crimes against women, which are common in Brazil. In March 2015, Rousseff signed a new law that increases penalties for the murder of women and girls. While contraception is available, abortion is legal only in the case of rape, a threat to the mother’s life, or a rare and usually fatal brain deformity in the fetus. Many women who undergo illegal abortions are eventually hospitalized due to complications.

A 2013 law legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Slavery-like working conditions pose a significant problem in rural—and increasingly urban—zones. A 2012 constitutional amendment allows the government to confiscate all property of landholders found to be using slave labor. Landowners who enslave workers also face fines and sentences of two to eight years in prison. Measures to fight the impunity of employers, such as mobile inspection units and a public “blacklist” of offending companies and landowners, have proven somewhat effective in reducing forced labor in rural Brazil. Official publication of the blacklist was halted in late 2014 following an injunction requested by a group representing real-estate developers. However, antislavery activists have used freedom of information laws to obtain and release the information, and the government announced in July 2015 that it would begin using drone aircraft in rural areas to investigate slave labor.

The government has sought to address the problem of child labor by cooperating with various nongovernmental organizations, increasing inspections, and offering cash incentives to keep children in school. Legislation enacted in 2014 classifies the sexual exploitation of minors as “a heinous crime,” with penalties of four to ten years in prison without eligibility for bail or amnesty.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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