Opinions - 31.08.2016 - 00:00 

Brazil: Marathon out of the crisis?

After the Olympic Fiesta in Rio de Janeiro Brasilia is in focus. The final judgement on the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff was passed. In addition to anti-corruption campaigns deeper reforms are needed to improve living conditions for the entire Brazilian population. An opinion piece by Dr. Angélica Rotondaro and Dr. Rolf Rauschenbach.

1 September 2016. The Olympic fiesta in Rio de Janeiro is over. However, the TV spectacle continues unabated: after the international sports competitions, the cameras are now zooming in on Brasilia, where the final judgement on the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff was passed. It will no doubt be followed by extensive coverage of anti-corruption trials.

Rather than being an opportunity for Ms Rousseff to encourage the Senate to vote against her definitive impeachment, the President’s being questioned was more of an opportunity for her to justify that "others may be corrupt, but not me".

Corruption – cause or effect?

The obsession with corruption is based on the idea that it is the cause of all our troubles. But is this true? In our view, corruption is much more a result, and not the cause, for the dramatic situation in Brazil. In general terms, corruption is the consequence of an imbalance of power and/or inadequate decision-making processes, which themselves create imbalances. It is widely known that Brazilian society is dominated by deep social inequalities; in that light, corruption does not come as a surprise. To make things worse, the country faces profound institutional problems.

Crises of the institutions

In theory, Brazil has one of the most modern, federal and democratic constitutions, and considering the public expenditure quota of about 38 per cent of GDP, plenty of resources are available to produce public goods.

In reality, however, the country is mostly governed by emergency decree, but even then, the government is unable to provide basic public goods. The National Congress is populated by 32 different parties, most of which lack a substantial programme, and about 60 per cent of its 594 members are facing criminal charges. The courts are totally overstretched; not even eight per cent of all homicides result in conviction.

When representative institutions fail, participatory mechanisms can act as ways of self-correction. And indeed, in the last few years Brazil has seen its largest mass protests to date. However, these informal methods of political participation demonstrate the difficulties involved in their being translated into formal political action. The process of direct democracy, and the Brazilian version of the popular initiative in particular, favour the elite more than empowering the people.

Signs of hope

But there are signs of hope: prosecutors and courts have started to take the pledge for justice and conviction seriously. In an action which initially targeted a car-wash operation on the borders to Paraguay, dozens of top-level executives from the private and public sectors have been sentenced to hundreds of years of prison. Even Lula da Silva, the antecessor of Rousseff, is facing charges. The same prosecutors and judges vowed to the people that they would launch an initiative against corruption. More than two million citizens have given their support to this initiative, which is currently being overseen by the Congress.

Several other initiatives have also been launched, such as Transparência Brasil (Brazil Transparency) and RAPS (Network of Political Action for Society), the latter financed by business leaders aiming to educate young politicians.

Profound reforms required

While we welcome these and many other campaigns against corruption, we believe that even more profound reforms are required to substantially improve living conditions for all Brazilians. To use a metaphor from the world of sports: a team of eleven young men winning a gold medal in a soccer game against Germany is not enough; it is time for an Ironman race to be run by the entire Brazilian population. Swimming 3.8 km requires a reasonable technique. In political terms, this means that Brazil needs to fundamentally reform its institutions (political reform, tax reform, etc.). When cycling 180 km, speed and equilibrium are crucial. Politically, this means that Brazil needs to invert its negative dynamics fast. All action needs to address inequality; otherwise the social divisions may become unbridgeable. Finally, to finish a marathon, one must be willing to endure pain. The same holds true for the political situation in Brazil: without painful cuts (public spending, the pension scheme for civil servants, etc.) and changes that affect everybody, such as the reform of the labour law, this will not be achieved.

It may appear cruel to call a whole nation to an Ironman race, even more so when we consider the eleven million unemployed. However, we believe that Brazil is up to this task. After all, one of the most famous mottos of this country is: Um brasileiro nunca desiste – a Brazilian never gives up!

Angélica Rotondaro is Permanent Lecturer and managing director of the University of St.Gallen Hub São Paulo. She holds a Ph.D in the area of organisational studies. She is also the co-founder of the Impact Business Latin America (IBLA) platform.

Rolf Rauschenbach holds a Ph.D in political science from the University of St. Gallen. He has lectured and researched at the University of São Paulo. Currently, he is based in Switzerland and works as an independent strategy advisor.

photo: Brazilian National Congress in Brasilia, filipefrazao –

Discover our special topics