Right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated President of Brazil on January 1, 2019. As a candidate, Bolsonaro promised that his regime would break with the large-scale graft of Brazil’s former leaders and would ruthlessly pursue the corrupt and bring them to justice. At the end of January, Justice Minister Sergio Moro released, with much fanfare and press attention, a sweeping anti-crime legislation package that addresses both white collar crime and violent organized crime, and that incorporates some, though not all, of the anticorruption measures proposed by Transparency International. So does this mean that the Bolsonaro Administration is following through on its promise to make the fight against corruption a major priority, and to end the culture of impunity that has shielded Brazilian political elites?
Alas, no. While the anti-crime package (and other high-profile pieces of legislation, like tax reform) have been highlighted by the administration and attracted most of the media attention, less prominent yet equally consequential pieces of legislation related to corruption are being passed with little to no warning or public debate. Here are two examples of major events that have occurred within the first month of the regime that should give anticorruption scholars and the international community pause in their evaluation of the Bolsonaro government’s fight against corruption:
- First, the Vice President signed a decree changing the Access to Information Law (LAI), Brazil’s transparency law akin to the United States’ Freedom of Information Act. This decree nearly doubled the number of public servants who can declare information “top secret” or “secret”; top secret documents are classified for 25 years, and secret for 15 years. Furthermore, the officials who can make these designations now include certain politically appointed positions in the executive branch. This change is antithetical to anticorruption and government transparency, as it makes it much easier for pro-regime appointed officials to shield key government documents from public view—a power that could easily be abused to cover the tracks of those in charge. Restricting public access to government documents is certainly not a promising omen for future transparency, and it says something that Moro barely weighed in on this issue, given his history, in his prior role as a judge in the so-called Car Wash corruption investigations, of using public evidence in the prosecution of government officials.
- Second, the Central Bank has proposed relaxing the rules for monitoring the finances of public officials. Currently, the Central Bank monitors the bank accounts of public servants and their relatives, scrutinizing transactions over 10,000 reais (about US$2,600). The Central Bank’s proposal would raise the minimum transaction threshold to 50,000 reais (about US$13,200), and would no longer monitor the financial transactions of public servants’ relatives. Relaxing and narrowing these monitoring requirements at a time when Brazil is still dealing with its largest corruption investigation in history seems like a curious decision, especially given the large number of politicians already in trouble for laundering their money through their spouses or other relatives (often in the form of purchases of jewels, vacation homes, and other luxury items). This proposal is still being debated, but it has quietly slid under the radar, overshadowed by higher-profile legislative initiatives (and, perhaps ironically, by allegations of money laundering in Bolsonaro’s eldest son’s cabinet during his stint as state legislator for the state of Rio de Janeiro).
Though the Brazilian media has provided some coverage of these troubling developments, that coverage has been dwarfed by reporting on tax reform, the anti-crime package, and the scandal-du-jour involving the President’s son. But it would be a mistake to ignore these developments, for two reasons. First, though the effects of these policies on corruption and anticorruption are not easily observable in the short or even medium term, they will have consequences for anticorruption in Brazil further down the road, as both changes make it easier for public officials to conceal possible acts of corruption, making it more difficult and time-consuming for investigators to find it. Second, these behind-the-scenes changes send a troubling signal about the new regime’s priorities and whether its commitment to anticorruption and transparency is genuine. It also sends a worrying message about whether Sergio Moro will prove willing and able to leverage his experience as a corruption fighter and judge to set appropriate restraints on power and steer the Bolsonaro administration in a positive direction on this issue.
Despite the hype around the anti-crime bill, and some of the genuinely laudable anticorruption reforms it contains, the legislation that has been going on behind the scenes suggests—unfortunately but not surprisingly—that the prospects of the Bolsonaro Administration ushering in a new era of public integrity in Brazil are low, and diminishing as the days go on. In fact, the sorts of things that the administration has been doing to reduce transparency of government and monitoring of public officials are exactly the sorts of incremental steps that, little by little, help to construct corrupt regimes that threaten transparency, democracy, and weaken protections for the independent press, activists, and corruption fighters.