From darkness into light

A big corruption case in Brazil is raising the profile of the justice system – and respect for the rule of law

Pedro Aguiar de Freitas

The 1980s was a lost decade for Brazil and several other Latin American countries. It was a period of high unemployment, the IMF code of conduct, fiscal austerity, recession and public demonstrations. Sound familiar?

Since then, we have seen several changes: inflation under control, fiscal balance, large-scale privatisation and a new constitution.

More recently, the country became the first letter of the famous Brics and has improved income distribution, meaning more consumers and a larger middle class. All these changes have had a profound effect in the legal profession.

Brazil keeps struggling to find its own way to modernise and grow into a larger role in the world, more compatible with the size of its territory and GNP – respectively, the world’s 5th and 6th largest.

Now, the country is following closely the judgment in a case concerning Mensalão (‘large monthly allowance’) at its Supreme Federal Court. Mensalão is the nickname of a scheme whereby the ruling party gave money to congressmen to attract support for its political agenda – an ‘acquired’ political alliance using public funds.

The matters took place during the first term of the still popular former president Lula and involved the former chief of staff, the former president of the Workers Party, the president of Congress and the senior officers of a bank among others. All have been found guilty.

The judgment began three months ago and is expected to last until the end of the year. It is shown on TV and some cable networks show whole sessions live. There are three sessions each week.

Some of the mystery surrounding the judiciary is being dissipated by this process. Most everyone now has an opinion about the case and the justices involved. Commentators explain the law and procedures, as well as possible outcomes.

The judiciary has shown its independence and the population has shown its appreciation and support for the rule of the law.

It is important to note that Brazil is holding elections for mayors and city councils as the case reaches its climax. The results of these are important for the 2014 presidential election. The judgment is about campaign financing, corruption, banking regulation, embezzlement of public funds, money laundering and tax evasion – hot topics anywhere these days.

The Supreme Court is sending strong messages on all these matters. The new jurisprudence follows modern trends and enjoys wide support among the public. This is part of a silent revolution that is transforming the justice system in the country.

It is also an important display of the freedom of the press and the benefits of this. The press has played an important part in making the scheme public and showing Brazilians the importance of the rule of law and the role of the court.

Of course, all this will have a big impact on the legal community as the country develops.