“It will end in pizza.”
Brazilians often use this popular expression when something very serious happens, say a crime, but nothing is done about it and everyone just accepts the outcome and goes back to partying, eating and drinking caipirinhas. It’s often used to describe probes into corruption cases involving the rich and powerful and it says as much about impunity as it does about complacency.
This time, the pizza tastes very bitter.
Brazil’s Supreme Court last week allowed the retrial of 12 out of 25 politicians convicted in a massive vote-buying scheme involving some of the top names in the ruling Workers’ Party.
The decision, which may lead to reduced or suspended prison sentences for the convicted, stunned Brazilians. But so far it’s failed to fuel the level of indignation seen during widespread demonstrations that started in June, when over a million people took to the streets to protest against everything from corruption to bus fares and ineffective public services.
The reopening of the trial – the biggest corruption case in recent Brazilian history – severely weakens the credibility of the country's highest court, seen as the only hope in the fight against Brazil’s historically corrupt political system.
Brazilians are stunned, sad and grieving over what they’re calling the death of justice. Social media sites are teeming with words like shame, mourning and impunity. Images of Lady Justice being impaled by a sword or crying bloody tears are plastered all over Facebook. And there are photos of pizzas everywhere.
But the buzz and excitement of those days in June, when Brazilians from all social groups – from students to senior citizens to single mothers – gathered in online chatrooms to plan protests, are nowhere to be seen.
Could it be that after the initial outburst of discontent and rage over how taxpayers’ money is spent, Brazilians are back to their complacent samba-dancing, pizza-eating state? Or perhaps they don’t realise the gravity of the Supreme Court’s move?
The same court found 25 defendants guilty in November last year in a landmark ruling that had Brazilians believing justice was finally catching up with the powerful in a country where the elite and ruling class enjoy widespread, institutionalised impunity.
In the past, politicians, including members of Congress and cabinet ministers, rarely went to prison, even after being found guilty of crimes including murder and kidnapping. They still enjoy a special standing that means only the Supreme Court – already swamped with thousands of new cases each year – can hear charges against them. This has led to years of delays, often meaning crimes can no longer be heard because they exceed the statute of limitations, or the maximum time legal proceedings can take place after a crime.
But last November, to the amazement of millions who watched the trial on TV as if it were a soccer championship, the court sentenced politicians to jail, including José Dirceu de Oliveira, chief of staff during the government of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and one of the party’s most powerful figures. So far, no one has gone to prison in relation to the case, which emerged in 2005.
As the pizza example shows, Brazilians love word play – idioms, diminutives, superlatives, Anglicisms and Frenchisms – and they are experts at giving funny nicknames to serious issues. Take the “mensalão” or “the big monthly allowance,” which is how this corruption scheme became known, in a reference to monthly payments lawmakers received in exchange for their support. Funds from state companies were channelled to the governing Workers’ Party and congressmen from several parties received the “mensalão” for their votes.
The retrial decision shows how “the whole is much deeper’’ than originally thought – another popular expression meaning there’s more to this case than meets the eye.
Jose Dirceu’s reputation may be tarnished by the scandal, but he is still one of the key figures in the Workers’ Party and has connections with top business leaders. Next year is an election year in this country of 200 million and President Dilma Rousseff – widely expected to seek re-election but whose popularity ratings are falling – could use his help.
Interestingly, the two chief justices she appointed to the Supreme Court after the November convictions were kind to Dirceu – they helped tip the balance in favour of the retrial decision yesterday. Dirceu, along with then union leader Lula, was one of the founders of the Workers’ Party in the 1980s and was a major force behind Lula’s rise to the presidency in 2003.
The appeals for a retrial were only possible because of an obscure legal procedure that allows close Supreme Court rulings to be reopened. This procedure, believed to have originated in the Portuguese legal system centuries ago, was virtually unknown in Brazilian constitutional law until some Supreme Court judges unearthed it during this trial.
Brazilians’ somewhat apathetic reaction, sadly, is perhaps a sign they don’t care that much about accountability – or about whether their hard-earned money is stolen by corrupt politicians or spent on Supreme Court cases that drag on for years.