What is Brazil’s “mensalão”?

November 19, 2013

The Economist,  11/18/2013

NOVEMBER 15th is a big date in Brazilian history books: on that day in 1889 a military coup overthrew emperor Dom Pedro II and established Brazil as a republic. This year it was significant for another reason. Despite the national holiday the president of the supreme court, Joaquim Barbosa, stayed at his desk and wrote warrants for the arrest of 12 of those convicted last year in the so-called “mensalão” case, several of them high-profile politicians with close links to the government. Eleven spent the weekend in jail; a 12th turned out to have fled to Italy several weeks before. But just what was the mensalão?

The word, a Portuguese neologism roughly meaning “big monthly stipend” was coined to describe clandestine payments made by the Workers’ Party (PT), which won the presidency in 2003, to congressional allies in return for support for its legislative agenda. The scandal broke in 2005 when the president of an allied party claimed in a newspaper interview that the PT was paying several congressmen 30,000 reais a month (around $12,000 at the time). The money was said to have come from the public purse via fake advertising contracts signed by state-owned companies with corrupt advertising firms. The scandal was one of many that broke in quick succession, with others involving allegations that the state-run postal system had accepted bribes for contracts and that the PT had been extorting money from illegal-betting rings in Rio de Janeiro. Overlapping congressional inquiries ended up accusing 18 congressmen of involvement in the vote-buying scheme. The biggest name among them was José Dirceu (pictured right), who had been chief of staff to the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, until forced by the scandal to step down.

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A blunt chief justice unafraid to upset Brazil’s status quo

August 29, 2013

Simon Romero – The New York Times, 08/23/2013

Brazil’s highest court has long viewed itself as a bastion of manners and formality. Justices call one another “Your Excellency,” dress in billowing robes and wrap each utterance in grandiloquence, as if little had changed from the era when marquises and dukes held sway from their vast plantations.

But when the chief justice, Joaquim Barbosa, strides into the court, the other 10 excellencies brace themselves for whatever may come next.

In one televised feud, Mr. Barbosa questioned another justice about whether he would even be on the court had he not been appointed by his cousin, a former president impeached in 1992. With another justice, Mr. Barbosa rebuked him over what the chief justice considered his condescending tone, telling him he was not his “capanga,” a term describing a hired thug.

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Brazil’s top Justice suggests trimming the influence of political parties and an end to cupola deals

June 26, 2013

Merco Press, 06/26/2013

“Brazil is going through a crisis of representativeness and legitimacy and is fed up with cupola reforms” said Justice Barbosa. “Look at Brazil’s history, all crucial moments of our history had cupola solutions. Independence was a collusion between the Portuguese and Brazilian elites. When the Republic the people was left out completely of the November 15 deal, without having a clue of what was going on”

Justice Barbosa talked with the press on Tuesday afternoon following a meeting with President Dilma Rousseff who invited him to the Planalto Palace to discuss the protests that have taken over the streets of more than a hundred Brazilian cities in demonstrations self-organized, peaceful and with clear objectives.

Although the Justice that has been identified by protestors as their reference because of his proven honesty and transparency (a rare quality in Brazilian politics and the three government branches) he did not say if he agreed with convening or not a constitutional assembly to implement political reforms. However he does support consulting the people on issues as those currently in the political agenda.

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Brazilian court council removes a barrier to same-sex marriage

May 16, 2013

Simon Romero – The New York Times, 05/14/2013

The council overseeing Brazil’s judiciary ruled on Tuesday that notary publics cannot refuse to performsame-sex marriage ceremonies, a decision that opens the way for gay couples across Latin America’s largest country to marry.

The move by the National Council of Justice, a 15-member panel led by Joaquim Barbosa, the chief justice of the nation’s high court, effectively legalizes gay marriage throughout Brazil, legal scholars here said. The decision follows legislation in twoneighboring countries, Argentina and Uruguay, where lawmakers have managed to pass bills authorizing same-sex marriage nationwide in recent years.

Still, there is some room for judicial appeals of the Brazilian decision, potentially within the high court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, and resistance may emerge in Congress, where gay-marriage legislation has faced opposition from an influential bloc of evangelical Christian lawmakers. Even so, supporters of same-sex marriage described the council’s decision as pioneering.

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First black court chief confronts corruption in Brazil

December 21, 2012

Raymond Colit, Arnaldo Galvao - Bloomberg, 12/20/2012

Joaquim Barbosa once pored over law tomes while working nights as a typesetter to pay for college. Now he is rewriting them — and the history books as well — as the first black chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court and the presiding judge in a landmark corruption case.

Barbosa, 58, rocketed to celebrity for his role in a trial that convicted close aides of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who appointed him to the top court in 2003. In a country where few politicians are ever tried for corruption and virtually none go to jail, Barbosa led the way in arguing that Lula’s aides stole public money, used it to bribe lawmakers and should be punished with lengthy prison terms.

The son of a brick-layer and a cleaning lady, Barbosa overcame racial prejudices to galvanize sentiment for cleaner politics. While non-whites make up more than half of Brazil’s population, they hold only 8 percent of seats in Congress and earn half as much as whites, according to the statistics agency.

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A healthier menu

December 21, 2012

The Economist, 12/22/2012

SO RARELY has political corruption led to punishment in Brazil that there is an expression for the way scandals peter out. They “end in pizza”, with roughly the same convivial implication as settling differences over a drink. But a particularly brazen scandal has just drawn to a surprisingly disagreeable close for some prominent wrongdoers. The supreme-court trial of the mensalão (big monthly stipend), a scheme for buying votes in Brazil’s Congress that came to light in 2005, ended on December 17th. Of the 38 defendants, 25 were found guilty of charges including corruption, money-laundering and misuse of public funds. Many received stiff sentences and large fines.

The supreme court must still write its report on the trial, and hear appeals—though it is unlikely to change its mind. So in 2013 Brazilians should be treated to an unprecedented sight: well-connected politicos behind bars. José Dirceu, who served as chief of staff to the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to almost 11 years; Delúbio Soares, former treasurer of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), got almost nine. Under the penal code, at least part of such long sentences must be served in jail. The justices also decided that the three federal deputies found guilty will automatically lose their seats if and when those verdicts are confirmed.

Lula was not charged, and has always insisted he knew nothing of the scheme. But Marcos Valério, a former advertising man sentenced to 40 years, claims to have evidence that Lula knew what was going on, and that some of the dirty money paid his personal expenses. These allegations may be merely a desperate attempt by a condemned man to bargain down his jail term. The attorney-general characterised Mr Valério as a “player”, and said his claims should be treated with caution. But if he has significant new evidence the mensalão may yet rumble on.

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Will Brazil’s ‘mensalao’ corruption trial bring change?

December 7, 2012

Joao Fellet, Alessandra Correa – BBC Brasil, 12/07/2012

When, four months ago, Brazil’s Supreme Court began to judge one of the largest political scandals in the country’s recent history, many wondered if the trial could really deliver a decisive blow against corruption.

As the case approaches its end, a total of 25 out of 37 defendants have been convicted, some of them key political figures.

There is still room for those who were convicted to appeal, but few think the court will change its ruling and absolve them.

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Brazil has its first ever black head of the Supreme Court

November 26, 2012

UTC – MercoPress, 11/23/2012

The son of a bricklayer and a cleaner Barbosa, 58, pledged in his swearing in “to fulfil the duties of the office of the President of the Federal Supreme Court and the National Council of Justice under the law.”

Barbosa’s elevation to the top judicial post in Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888, has been heralded as a breakthrough. Despite constituting a majority of the population (52%), Afro-Brazilians languish at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Only 2.2% of Afro descendants make it to university.

Barbosa shot to fame as the court’s most vocal critic of a congressional vote-buying scheme laid bare in an ongoing trial — dubbed “Mensalao” or “big monthly payments” — of former president Lula da Silva’s top aides.

The scandal nearly cost Lula re-election in 2006, but the 66-year-old founder and leader of the leftist Workers’ Party was cleared.

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A blow against impunity

November 15, 2012

H.J. – The Economist, 11/15/2012

Brazil’s mensalão trial has brought many historic moments (see here and here), and this week saw one more: an impeccably well-connected politico getting such a long prison sentence that even the best lawyer will struggle to save him from doing time. On November 12th José Dirceu, who served as chief of staff for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from 2003 to 2005, was sentenced to ten years and ten months in jail for his part in the huge vote-buying scheme. Two other prominent members of the Workers’ Party (PT) also received stiff sentences: Delubio Soares, its former treasurer, got eight years and 11 months in prison, and José Genoino, its former president, six years and 11 months.

It sometimes appears that the Brazilian criminal-justice system locks people up on a whim. Half the prison population has either not yet been tried or is awaiting a final verdict, and much of the other half committed non-violent property or drugs crimes. But for those with resources, it allows huge scope for delay, leeway on sentencing and almost unlimited appeals. The three men, along with the other 22 who have been found guilty of crimes such as money-laundering, corruption, embezzlement and misuse of public money, benefited from a rule known as “privileged forum” which says that top politicians can only be tried for crimes in higher courts. In this case, the Supreme Court, which normally deals with constitutional, not criminal matters, had to decide to take the case. That meant that though the scandal surfaced in 2005, the trial only started this year, in August.

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Corruption trial makes black Brazilian judge a hero

November 1, 2012

Reuters/CNBC, 11/01/2012

As the biggest corruption trial in Brazilian history comes to an end with convictions of once-powerful politicians, at least one hero has emerged from the mess — the first black member of the country’s Supreme Court.

People stop Justice Joaquim Barbosa in the street to thank him. Revelers in Rio de Janeiro have been buying Barbosa carnival masks and wearing them in demonstrations. His childhood picture recently graced the cover of the country’s biggest newsweekly with the caption “The Poor Boy Who Changed Brazil.”s

The gratitude follows Barbosa’s dogged pursuit of guilty verdicts against some of the closest associates of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for their involvement in a widespread vote-buying scandal seven years ago.

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