Considering Impunity in the Public Service

Today’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported that the President’s Commission on Public Ethics has issued an ‘ethical censure’ to Erenice Guerra, Dilma Rousseff’s chief lieutenant during her tenure as Chief of Staff for President Lula da Silva. Guerra resigned in shame following revelations of corruption, influence peddling to benefit family relatives, and prevarication. Today, I changed Guerra’s English Wikipedia entry to reflect this new development.

Erenice Guerra


Unfortunately, the only hope for true accountability is for Guerra to be brought to public trial by the news media and the power of the internet. But the association between President Rousseff and Guerra is so strong that the media is unlikely to make much of the case. What is there to make much of, in the first place? A slap on the wrist by a forgotten ‘Ethics Commission’?

In effect, the enforcement of ethics across Brazilian public institutions is woefully ineffective, i.e. they have resulted in no criminal sanctions to speak of. The Ethics Council in the Chamber of Deputies, for example, is composed of all the president’s men; that is to say that its composition reflects the partisan balance of power in the Chamber, which has proven to be a consistent majority for the President.  Notwithstanding serious misdoing, such as the monthly vote-buying scheme revealed in 2005 (the ‘mensalão’), ethics commissions have failed to bring transgressors to judgment with real fines, jail time, or punitive service.

A young Dilma was tortured by the Dictatorship

Impunity as an obstacle to the rule of law in Brazil will soon meet its next test,  a signature reform of Dilma Rousseff’s electoral platform, a Truth Commission. Now being debated in the Chamber of Deputies, a Truth Commission might once-and-for-all heal wounds left open by the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The first question is whether the Truth Commission can be successfully established. The second is whether it will have any effect.

This raises an interesting question. In a country where the rule of law is relatively well enforced in most areas of ‘higher law,’ why does it fail so spectacularly to bring public servants —those who make and enforce laws— to justice? Brazil is not alone here. According to U.S. Freedom of Information Legend Thomas Susman, the U.S. has not sanctioned a single official for unlawfully manipulating or withholding information from the public, a crime punishable in accordance with the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Such manipulation is widely documented, yet has never been acted upon.

The question, then, is what factors allow impunity to persist? Impunity, the exemption from punishment, frequently faces a first paradoxical hurdle: the very institutions in which transgressions take place are usually the ones responsible for enforcing the rules.


  • Dr. Michener, you make a good start but more is required, IMNSHO.
    I take umbrage with the comparative US reference, in the US politicians are prosecuted and go to jail on a regular basis for crimes with stiffer penalties than the “unlawfully manipulating or withholding information from the public.”
    The Brazilian society is shot through with the arrogance of Impunity, top to bottom, Politicians to public street parking “attendance.” What event or action could possible change this “high stakes” or even “the low grade” culture of corruption? Is it even necessary or reasonable for us expect it to change?
    What role does culture really play in this (think this is the phrase) “o jeitinho brasileiro” or is this an excuse for selfish behavior that occurs in almost every culture to some extent. Is this sort of thing an example of what I’ve heard refereed to as “Brazil being 50 years behind,” or facing 19th century problems in the 21 century?
    The Truth Commission sounds like a grand opportunity for grand standing and pandering but I must admit I am ignorant of its true purpose. Will it effect change?

    I hope you investigate and write more about these topics.

  • I was trying to be just a little inflammatory with my choice of words. Better to get a response from other readers. That said, I do believe the Brazilian society as a whole does accept (even expect) corruption in various aspects of life. The guys on the street extorting money for parking, the little things one can do to speed up processes involving various levels of government:”jeitinho brasileiro.” I have my own experience in this dealing with DETRAN and Police Federal and then I hear stories as I am sure you do/have.
    In my self defense I’ll note that I also pointed to or stated that this selfish behavior is not Brazilian but human but varies in prevalence and consequence by society. The politicians going to jail regularly is simple truth, just in the last couple of years e.g. Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Rep. Randy Cunningham, LA Governor about 5 years ago.
    I will also stand behind my comments regarding a lag in social development (aka societal ethics?) versus economic development. To me it is a clear example and application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at the societal level and my guess is that this is the norm for a counties development. Today’s cultural ethics of the US are not what they were in the wild west days or even of the 1950’s. I think the same is true in Brazil today and has been true in every society with respect to development.
    I think as a foreigner I/we are more taken aback by this sort of thing and we have a tendency to be just a little lordly, with it. Not that this is a totally bad thing, we have a different perspective that is valuable and openly talking about this (corruption) will help create the pressure that may end up reducing its social acceptance.
    I must admit my inflammatory word usage and brevity deserved being called out.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Hi Skarlette, I appreciate your feedback, but your comments are a little harsh to publish. To say that the rich rape the poor may be figuratively correct, but it is certainly a very offensive image and not reflective of all Brazilians– there are a lot of rich Brazilians that do quite a lot of good. Why are you married to a Brazilian if you feel such contempt for the country…?

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