Grandma and Me vs. The Congressman

Postado em: 2nd outubro 2014 por Vanessa Barbara em New York Times, Reportagens

The International New York Times
October 3, 2014

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Op-Ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Twelve years ago, I helped oust a congressman. At least temporarily.

The story began on Sept. 7, 2002, Brazil’s Independence Day. On that holiday, my 68-year-old grandmother told me about her new computer training lessons. They were free, she said, and the teacher was good, but something was very wrong.

A candidate who was running for Congress the following month had sponsored the course. His name was printed on every page of the course brochure, along with his candidate number (which voters would press in the voting machines), and there was a huge photograph of him smiling. My grandma showed me the sample text for typing exercises: It was a short biography of the politician, a summary of his main accomplishments and noblest deeds. She already knew everything by heart, and she kept repeating it robotically — you could see that she was angry.

Also, she had had to present her voter registration card in order to enroll in the course. “Isn’t that illegal?” she asked me.

I was a journalism student at the time, and I wanted to change the world, so I decided to investigate. She invited me to her graduation, later that week, and I went to the building with my tape recorder and a camera. I recorded the graduation speech, in which the teacher asked the 10 or so students to vote for their benefactor, so he could “keep on doing his beautiful work.” The candidate himself wasn’t there, but one of his political advisers told the students that one way to show appreciation for the course was “by the vote.” The graduation gift was a campaign T-shirt.

I submitted all the evidence to the Movement Against Electoral Corruption, a newly formed nonprofit group that had the support of organizations such as the Brazilian Bar Association. The group formally accused the candidate of buying votes, and the case went to the regional electoral court.

In the meantime, he was elected.

When my grandma and I were finally called as witnesses for the prosecution a few years later, part of our family was afraid. Some of them still remembered what it was like to be a witness during the military dictatorship, only 30 years ago: worthless, dangerous and potentially lethal. Others told us to mind our own business.

Nonetheless, we testified, in front of the candidate himself and a handful of his defense lawyers. They asked me for details such as, “How many people were present at the graduation?” and “How many days did you wait to present the evidence?” as if I could open an Excel spreadsheet and answer, “Three hundred and fifteen, sir; eight days, nine hours and 17 minutes, Brazilian local time.”

The candidate was acquitted on procedural grounds, but the case went to the superior electoral court. There he was finally convicted.

It could be a success story about two improbable heroines fulfilling their civic duties, but that would be too easy. Since the trial proceedings took more than three years, the congressman was deprived of his seat only in the last year of his tenure. No other penalties were applied. Then, in 2006, he was elected for another term of four years. According to our law, he was still eligible.

Five years ago, the Movement Against Electoral Corruption led a huge campaign that persuaded the president to approve the long-awaited Clean Record Act, which stipulates that politicians who are convicted of a crime cannot apply for public jobs for eight years. That should have been the case for our convicted candidate, who was still in politics, but somehow he found a way to bypass the law. He lost the election but, as a substitute for the party, replaced another congressman who had to step down and thus fulfilled his seventh term, in which he gloriously created a holiday called the State Egg Day. (This was classified as an “urgent matter.”)

He’s currently running for Congress again.

That sums up Brazilians’ political disenchantment nowadays, and also my grandmother’s cynicism on the subject. Now 80, she’s decided never to vote again. (In Brazil, voting is mandatory for citizens between 18 and 70.)

Our recent political history shows similar disappointments. In 1989, Brazil held its first direct presidential election since the military dictatorship. Two years later, the president was forced to resign over accusations of flagrant corruption. We had a new Constitution in 1988, a nice one. But some say “it didn’t stick.” In 2002 we elected our first left-wing president from the working class, who was later re-elected. Things were finally looking better. Then it turned out part of the government was involved in a case of vote-buying in 2005.

Now we’re about to vote for president again, on Oct. 5, but there are no great expectations.

This notion of approved laws that simply “don’t stick” and of dishonest politicians who continue to win elections despite all evidence against them fuels our collective disillusion. Things seem to happen (or don’t) despite our best efforts, in ways we cannot grasp. Last year, millions protested in the streets against the poor quality of public services, but little, if anything, has changed. Year by year, our politicians just create more Egg Days and raise their own salaries.

Today most Brazilians believe that our representative democracy is rotten. And they feel that, whatever they do, nothing is going to change. I’m afraid that they’re right.

But they don’t even try anymore.

Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, edits the literary website A Hortaliça.