The corruption scandal surrounding Brazil's President Fernando Collor de Mello may well be nothing more than another gory episode in the South American giant's infinite incapacity to govern itself properly; Brazil is the country of the future and will always be so. In contrast to the hemisphere's current success stories--Argentina, Mexico, Chile--Brazil might be deemed to be simply undergoing an old-fashioned trauma: the demise of a frivolous president, reflecting the gridlock of a paralyzed political system, compounded by the failure to reform the economy.
But the Brazilian crisis can also be seen differently: as a true watershed in Latin American politics, where corruption--a mainstay in every nation of the region for centuries--finally is punished instead of being rewarded. It can also be taken as a harbinger of things to come, as an example of constitutional governance, not as an example of the usual scandal to be covered up and left to fester.
Collorgate, as it has come to be known in Brazil, is not the first instance of high-level corruption in Brazilian history, or in the politics of Latin America as a whole. But it probably marks the first time that a sitting president is publicly accused, then officially and legally investigated and finally condemned for having illegally enriched himself and his family. In the past, military coups or revolutions have unearthed corruption and fabulous enrichment by previous regimes, and on occasion have even punished it. But never had the same political and legal system that brought a president to power turned around and judged him for such offenses and forced him from office.
The probable impeachment of Collor is not a symptom of the weakness of Brazilian politics, nor is it a telltale sign of the paralysis of a fragmented political framework. It is proof of strength and viability and the logical outcome of two underlying, contradictory and decisive trends: the democratization of Brazilian politics that has evolved over the past decade, and the rise to power of young, ambitious and unquestionably talented technocrats who have little or no respect for accountability and the rule of law or sensitivity to the immense poverty surrounding their presidential mansions.
The vibrance of Brazilian civil society--the church and political parties, the press and Congress, unions and women, students and environmentalists--has stood Brazil apart from much of the rest of Latin America in recent years. It is leading to a true milestone in the country's traditions: For the first time, corruption may cost a president his job, as a result of an institutional procedure, instead of simply damaging his reputation or forcing him into a golden exile.
But if the Collor scandal is a sign of strength rather than weakness, it is also an exception. The real question that should be asked throughout the highly touted "new Latin democracies" is how many other chief executives of the region could withstand the type of scrutiny of their own family finances--check by check, luxury by luxury--that Collor was subjected to by the Brazilian Congress? Could Argentina's Carlos Saul Menem, his brother and all the Yoma in-laws involved in the so-called Yomagate scandal, survive such an investigation? So far, the scandal has remained limited to rumors and articles in the press. In Mexico, could Carlos Salinas' brother Raul withstand a detailed examination of his financial records, instead of them being subject only to gossip and sensationalist columnists' unproved attacks? Could Carlos Andres Perez and the two-party monopoly in Venezuela survive a congressional search-and-destroy mission like the one Collor fell victim to in Brazil?
Corruption has been a fixture of Latin American governance since colonial times. It has changed only in form, not substance. Enrichment no longer comes mainly through procurement and influence-peddling. The new name of the game is selling off state firms to friends, insider trading and currency speculation.
Something else is new: society's willingness to put constraints on such enrichment at the taxpayers' expense. Whatever the outcome of Collor's dilemma, actions without impunity are being banished, at least in Brazil, and one hopes, soon from its Latin American neighbors.