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Brazil: Can Bolsonaro reunify the right and make a political comeback?

Allegations against him raise questions on credibility of Brazil's politicians


Can a country survive as a serious international player if its leaders are not held accountable for blatant corruption?

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the former president who relished branding his election opponent Inacio Lula da Silva as “a thief” and an “ex-con,” visited Saudi Arabia in 2021 and returned with gifts worth millions of dollars, which he did not report to the patrimony of the country as per law. It was disclosed that jewels worth R$16 million ($ 3.1 million), which by law would belong to the patrimony of the Brazilian state, were attempted to pass customs as gifts meant for his wife.

At the end of an official visit to Saudia Arabia in October 2021, an "envoy" from the Saudi government gave two packages to Brazil's then mines and energy minister Bento Albuquerque. Upon his return to Brazil, customs inspectors found an undeclared box of diamonds carried in the backpack of an aide of Albuquerque. The diamonds were seized for failure to pay the required import duty. 

Officials of the Bolsonaro administration tried—at least eight times—to persuade customs inspectors to release a stash of jewels. An attempt was made to pull rank on the customs official at the Sao Paulo airport and force an immediate handover of the jewels, which the agent refused. These attempts continued until the last days of Bolsonaro's term. Later, reports unearthed a second package of valuable jewels that went undetected and kept by Bolsonaro.

A third set of jewels, given directly to Bolsonaro as gift was to be properly reported into the president’s collection, but it was kept, along with other boxes of gifts, at a supporter’s house months after Bolsonaro left office, according to O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.

Bolsonaro administration officials made some 150 trips to Saudi Arabia. Questions have been raised if these trips were official or for personal business. 

At the heart of this scandal, however, is the question if international relations can truly function in the best interest of constituents if those in government can use foreign trips to conduct personal business, with no transparency or accountability regarding what is being exchanged. It also raises concerns about the role of corruption and abuse of power in Brazilian politics, and what reforms are needed to address these issues.

The impact of this scandal goes beyond the behavior of Bolsonaro during his trip to Saudi Arabia. It raises questions about the broader culture of corruption in Brazilian politics and the extent to which citizens can trust their elected representatives to act with integrity and in the public interest.

Moreover, this scandal has implications for Brazil's relationships with other countries and international organisations. Corrupt behavior during foreign trips can undermine diplomatic relations and economic cooperation and can make it difficult for governments to effectively represent the interests of their citizens in international forums.

For a country like Brazil, the issue is whether these disclosures mark a transformational moment or just another twist and turn in the annals of corruption.

The possibility of gifts given to a president being used for personal gain should raise concerns about the integrity of those in government and the country’s overall commitment to transparency and accountability. At a minimum, the scandal highlights the potential for corruption and abuse of power. 

The fundamental matter for Brazil is whether such practices reflect a broader culture of corruption and unethical behavior in society and whether the country is willing to trade political enthusiasm for good governance. Considering the fact that Bolsonaro’s political party is ignoring the festering scandal, their actions vis-a-vis planning to welcome the former president in a grand manner, inviting thousands of supporters, and positioning him as the leader of the opposition, raise questions about the party’s values and priorities, and whether there is a willingness to tolerate or condone behavior that is not in the country's interest. 

Besides, it raises concerns about the role of money and power in shaping political decisions and if this undermines democratic governance. There are questions as to whether the jewels received are tied to the sale of a refinery in the state of Goias to Saudi Arabia. 

For Brazil as a whole, it is a moment of reckoning as to whether its society is committed to the principles of transparency, accountability and whether a powerful politician can use his popularity to get away with such actions. Can Brazilian society, or any society for that matter, function effectively and be taken seriously in the international forums if its leaders are not held accountable for blatant acts of corruption and personal gains?

For all the analogies that have been made between Bolsonaro and Trump, Brazil’s aspirations in the world stage demand that its leaders demonstrate that their decisions are in the best interests of the people.

The improper appropriation of jewels that belong to the state could seriously undermine the effort to build trust in the institutions of a serious government. The actions of Bolsonaro’s Partido Liberal do threaten a breakdown of democracy and a further loss of Brazilian credibility on the international stage. 

Other questions that remain are:

Do these actions show that Bolsonaro compromised the integrity of the government and undermined its ability to serve the best interests of the Brazilian public?

How do incidents such as this affect Brazil's reputation in the international community, and what can be done to restore trust and credibility?

What measures should be taken to show Brazilians and the world that future governmental delegations are under strict vigil, so they always act with transparency and accountability abroad?

How does corruption in the political system affect Brazil's economic development, and what reforms can be implemented?

Brazil has a Code of Conduct for Public Officials, which sets ethical standards for their behavior and requires disclosure of financial interests and conflicts. How strong are its institutions in charge of enforcing these? The country has several anti-corruption laws in its books such as the Clean Company Act, and the Anti-Corruption Law as well as an independent Office of the Comptroller General. Can they act to protect Brazil’s international standing?

Or will Bolsonaro be able brush these aside to reunify the right and make a political comeback?

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