Impeached Ex-President Pockets Brazilian FOI Bill

5 May 2011

By Greg Michener

Michener is a Rio de Janeiro-based political scientist currently writing a book for Cambridge University Press on freedom of information in Latin America. E-mail is rgm@gregmichener.com. His blog is http://observingbrazil.com

A surprising turn of events threatens to derail 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 3, World Press Freedom Day — a deadline set by President Rousseff just after President Barack Obama’s mid-March visit. But machinations in the Senate have put the bill’s enactment into question.

On April 13 Rousseff expressed her support for the freedom of information bill, and it needed only the approval of three committees in the Senate to become law. After passing the first two, on April 25 the law failed to make it past the Committee on Foreign Relations and Defense.

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

President Rousseff responded May 5  by starting a process for the bill to be forcibly discharged from committee for a plenary vote. Assuming there is no untoward resistance outside of that committee, i.e. from the Senate or within the Executive branch, the bill should pass on May 18.

A lot can happen between now and then, however. Substantively, there is no change to the bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies, so there will be no information commission — the comptroller general will be responsible for the law, and the courts will be the ultimate recourse.

The Sun Shining on Brazil

The passage of a freedom of information law should bring about significant change 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 to start behaving like watchdogs, according to Fabiano Angélico, one of the founders of a pro-transparency movement called Brasil Aberto. According to Angélico, Brazil’s huge infrastructure initiatives need greater oversight. And while Brazil’s tax burden is the heaviest in the hemisphere at over 35 percent of GDP, a recently updated 2003 report from the Comptroller General estimated that as much as 30 percent of federal funds disappear at the municipal level.

Political Lessons

The Collor incident is a lesson in political humility for the Rousseff administration, and a warning sign for what Brazil’s 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 priorities 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.

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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