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.
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.
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.