Impeached Ex-President Pockets Brazilian Freedom of Information Law

A surprising turn of events threatens to de-rail President Dilma Rousseff’s bid for greater governmental openness and transparency in Brazil.

Brazil was on track to pass its long awaited freedom of information (FOI) law on May 3rd, World Press Day—  a deadline set by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff just after President Barack Obama’s mid-March visit. More than 90 countries now possess freedom of information laws, and twelve of them are in Latin America— minus Brazil. Until Rousseff’s declaration of support in mid-April, the region’s Goliath stood out as a laggard, casting itself among the ranks of Bolivia and Venezuela, as opposed to acting like the regional and global leader it is trumped-up to be. Now once again Brazil’s commitment to greater transparency has fallen into question.

Secrecy and the Ex-President

Although President Rousseff appears to stand firmly behind the law and her popularity and support in Congress are strong, the forces of secrecy rendered a May 3rd enactment impossible to achieve. Having passed the Lower House a year ago, the bill only needed the approval of three committees in the Senate. It was approved by the first two on April 19th , but on April 25th the law failed to make it past the Committee on Foreign Relations and Defense— the last hurdle. Senator Fernando Collor, head of the Committee and a key ally of President Rousseff’s congressional coalition, pocketed the bill and refused to move it forward. Collor was President of Brazil from 1990 to 1992, when he was impeached on influence peddling and corruption charges. He returned to federal politics in 2007.

Despite a direct appeal by President Rousseff’s Chief of Staff, Antonio Palocci, Collor has refused to approve the freedom of information bill. Resistance appears to run deep; the Committee over which Collor presides, Foreign Relations and Defense, is intimately tied to Brazil’s armed forces. The military is one of the country’s best known opponents of openness and have long sought to conceal abuses committed under the 1964-1985 dictatorship. According to journalist Fernando Rodrigues from the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, Senator Collor wants to keep certain types of information secret in perpetuity, as Brazilian law currently guarantees.

On May 3rd President Rousseff promised to use her powers to discharge the bill from Committee and force a floor vote on it in two weeks time, but it is uncertain whether internal resistance has run its course.

The Sun Shining on Brazil

The passage of a freedom of information law may bring about seismic changes in Brazil. Whereas governments in Chile and Argentina have confronted the human rights violations of previous dictatorships, Brazil’s armed forces have so far vetoed attempts to examine the 1963-85 archives. President Rousseff’s allies are now struggling to gain Congress’ support for a Truth Commission, and a freedom of information of law may provide a useful tool to this end.

Citizens also need a window into government if they are going to serve as watchdogs, especially with regards to public spending. Fabiano Angélico, one of the founders of a pro-transparency movement called Brasil Aberto, cites a report by the National Comptroller General. Originally published in 2003, the report estimated that as much as 30 percent of federal funds were lost in corruption at the municipal level. With huge infrastructure initiatives in the works for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, not to mention national projects such as hydro dams and highways, greater scrutiny into public accounts is indispensable. Unsurprisingly, tax and fiscal reform is the business community’s top priority. At over 35 percent of GDP, Brazil’s tax burden is the heaviest in the hemisphere.

Political Lessons

The Collor incident is a lesson in political humility for the Rousseff administration, and a warning sign for the President’s reform agenda and what the freedom of information law may be up against. While on paper President Rousseff has enough legislative backers to pass constitutional amendments, her challenge remains to put this support into practice and move her reform agenda forward. With more than 25 parties in Congress, maintaining coalition support often entails more give than take, which may go some way towards explaining Rousseff’s tight-lipped tolerance for Senator Collor’s snub.

Aggressive news media reporting may help shine light on underhanded legislative moves to stymie Rousseff’s reforms. But in Brazil, news media coverage tends to be more consensual than conflictive. In contrast to the U.S., Mexico, and other countries in Latin America, media support for transparency in general, and freedom of information in particular, has been conspicuously reserved.

Assuming the law passes in the coming weeks, the next question is whether government will be able to “sacá-la do papel,” as the Brazilians say— get the law off of paper, implement and enforce it. Media and citizen support will be indispensable for attaining this goal. Brazil’s emerging ‘global consciousness’ may also be instrumental. During President Obama’s mid-March visit, Brazilian officials accepted an invitation to join an Open Government Partnership, due to be announced at the opening of the United Nations in September. This commitment provides hope that Brazil will overcome its strong historical leanings toward secrecy, and exercise the regional democratic leadership that it should rightfully assume.


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