1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 3

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Brazil receives a downward trend arrow because of a failure to convict police implicated in rural massacres which contributed to a sense of impunity by rogue officers in the country.


Faced with fresh evidence of the growing power of narcotics traffickers among Brazil's political and economic elite, in 1999 President Fernando Henrique Cardoso announced the creation of a new commission against organized crime. He made the move after it was revealed that a vast criminal network, composed of parliamentary deputies, judges, and police, immersed in narcotics and arms trafficking, was behind the assassination of dozens of people, including mayors, other judges, and witnesses in criminal cases. The case highlighted concern about the lawlessness found in many rural areas, as well as Brazil's growing role as a key cocaine-smuggling route to Europe.

After gaining independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil retained a monarchical system until a republic was established in 1889. Democratic rule has been interrupted by long periods of authoritarian rule, most recently under military regimes from 1964 to 1985, when elected civilian rule was reestablished. A new constitution that went into effect in 1988 provides for a president elected for four years, a bicameral congress consisting of an 81-member senate elected for eight years and a 503-member chamber of deputies elected for four years.

Civilian rule has been marked by corruption scandals. The scandal having the greatest political impact led to the impeachment by congress of President Fernando Collor de Mello (1989-92). Collor resigned and was replaced by a weak, ineffectual government led by his vice president, Itamar Franco.

In early 1994, Cardoso, Franco's finance minister and a market-oriented centrist, forged a three-party, center-right coalition around his own Social Democratic Party (PSDB). As his anti-inflation plan appeared to work dramatically, Cardoso, a former Marxist backed by big media and big business, jumped into the lead. In October 1994 Cardoso won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote, against 27 percent for Luis Ignacio "Lula" de Silva, the leader of the leftist Workers' Party (PT) and an early front-runner. The senate was divided among 11 parties, and the chamber of deputies among 18. Cardoso's coalition did not have a majority in either house.

Cardoso spent 1995 cajoling and horse-trading for the congressional votes needed to carry out his economic liberalization program. That fall, his government was rocked by a bribery and phone-tapping scandal. In April 1996, Cardoso indicated that he favored a constitutional amendment to drop the one-term limit, which would allow him to run for reelection in 1998, and in 1997 he was able to secure congressional approval for such a measure.

In 1996, land issues were high on the political agenda. In January, Cardoso announced presidential decree 1775, which allows states, municipalities, and non-Indians to challenge, at the federal level, proposed demarcation of Indian lands. Following the decree, miners and loggers increased their encroachments on Indian land. In another development, a radicalized movement representing landless peasants continued to occupy mostly fallow land in rural areas to pressure the government to settle rural families. The activism contributed to scores of violent conflicts between peasants on the one hand and, on the other hand, the military, police, and private security forces, which act with virtual impunity.

In 1998, Cardoso's first-ballot victory (nearly 52 percent of the votes cast) over Lula, his nearest rival, was tempered somewhat by a less convincing win at the congressional and gubernatorial levels. His win was also overshadowed when published accounts of secretly recorded conversations seemed to indicate that two top officials were steering a bid to privatize part of the state-run telephone holding company to a consortium of personal friends, who ended up losing the auction.

The revelation in 1999 of a vast criminal conspiracy centered in the jungle state of Acre highlighted the lawlessness of Brazil's remote areas and moved Cardoso to take firm measures to combat organized crime. In June, Cardoso's choice for chief of the federal police was forced to resign after holding office just three days when he was alleged to have participated in the torture of political prisoners during the military regime. At the same time, a power struggle between the state intelligence service (Abin) and the federal police, in which the wiretapping of top political figures, including Cardoso himself, was revealed, contributed to the scandal over the privatization of the national telecommunications system.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change governments through elections. The 1998 elections were considered free and fair, with opposition candidates winning the governorships of three of the biggest states – Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul. Congress remains dominated by the executive branch. Concern has been expressed about Cardoso's use of "provisional measures" (decrees) in order to bypass congress. Corruption is pervasive at all levels of government. A 1999 study showed that nepotism is rife in the congress, where one third of all deputies have placed their wives, children and relatives on the official government payroll.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and expression and the right to organize political and civic organizations. Cardoso is credited with initiating a marked change in attitudes concerning international criticism on rights issues, from aggressive, nationalistic rejection to dialogue and openness. He created a ministerial-rank secretariat charged with defending human rights. The crime of torture was upgraded from a misdemeanor to a serious crime punishable by up to 16 years in prison. He has also proposed making all rights violations federal crimes, thus moving their investigation from the jurisdiction of state civil and military police forces.

In the past decade, the murder rate in Brazil has doubled, with the rates of killings in cities such as Sao Paulo reaching as many as 80 in a single weekend. The climate of lawlessness is reinforced by a weak judiciary. Brazil's supreme court is granted substantial autonomy by the constitution. However, the judicial system is overwhelmed (with only 7,000 judges for a population of more than 150 million) and vulnerable to chronic corruption. It has been virtually powerless in the face of organized crime. A national breakdown in police discipline and escalating criminal violence, fueled by a burgeoning drug trade and increasing ties to Italian and other foreign criminal organizations, have added to a climate of lawlessness and insecurity. Human rights, particularly those of socially marginalized groups, are violated with impunity on a massive scale.

Brazil's police are among the world's most violent and corrupt. Grossly underpaid in the lower ranks, their working conditions are poor. Extrajudicial killings are usually disguised as shootouts with dangerous criminals. Torture is routine, particularly against poor criminal suspects, and is practiced by the federal police as well as the state civil and military police. Military policemen in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have secretly been caught on videotape attacking people on the street, extorting money, and opening fire on – and killing – motorists during routine operations. In many cities "death squads," often composed of off-duty state police, terrorize shantytown dwellers and intimidate human rights activists attempting to investigate abuses. In 1999, the first three of the 150 police on trial for the 1996 massacre of 19 landless peasants in Para state were absolved, a finding that underlines the justice system's inability to deal fairly with police brutality.

Since 1994, the federal government has deployed the army to quell police strikes and bring order to Rio de Janeiro's 400 slums, most of which are ruled by gangs in league, or in competition, with corrupt police and local politicians. Public distrust of the judiciary has resulted in poor citizens taking the law into their own hands, with hundreds of reported lynchings and mob executions. In response to U.S. pressure, the Brazilian military is playing an increasing role in antinarcotics efforts.

The prison system in Brazil is anarchic, overcrowded, and largely unfit for human habitation, and human rights groups charge that the torture and other inhumane treatment common to most of the country's detention centers turns petty thieves into hardened criminals. A proposal by Cardoso's new justice minister to radically revamp the penal code so that as many as half of Brazil's 200,000 prisoners (those who do not represent a physical danger to others) could return to the streets and so that those convicted of heinous crimes would have the right to parole created bitter controversy.

The press is privately owned. There are dozens of daily newspapers and numerous other publications throughout the country. The print media have played a central role in exposing official corruption. In recent years TV Globo's near monopoly on the broadcast media has been challenged by its rival, Sistema Brasiliero de Televisao (STB). In a negative development, in December 1999, the chamber of deputies approved a comprehensive "gag" law that would impose stiff penalties on journalists, police, prosecutors and judges who make public any information regarding on-going criminal investigations or prosecutions.

Large landowners control nearly 60 percent of arable land, while the poorest 30 percent share less than two percent. In rural areas, violence linked to land disputes is declining, but courts have increasingly supported the eviction of landless farmers. Land disputes have risen sharply in recent years, as numerous invasions of "unproductive" land have been organized by rural activists to draw attention to the plight of more than two million families without land. Thousands of workers are forced by ranchers in rural areas to work against their will and have no recourse to police or courts.

Violence against women and children is a common problem. Protective laws are rarely enforced. In 1991 the supreme court ruled that a man could no longer kill his wife and win acquittal on the ground of "legitimate defense of honor," but juries tend to ignore the ruling. Forced prostitution of children is widespread. Child labor is prevalent, and laws against it are rarely enforced. A recent UNICEF study reported that 53 percent of the 17.5 million children and young people forced to work in Latin America are in Brazil, and of these one million are less than ten years old. In 1999, the government announced a plan it said would abolish child labor by 2003.

Violence against Brazil's 250,000 Indians continues. In May 1998, the coordinator of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples was murdered by unidentified gunmen. The 1988 constitution guarantees indigenous peoples land rights covering some 11 percent of the country, and by law outsiders can enter Indian reserves only with permission. However, the government has completed the demarcation and registration of only 187 of the 559 eligible Indian reservations. Court and administrative rulings have eroded indigenous land claims, putting a third of the promised territory in legal limbo. Decree 1775 has opened Indian land to greater pressure from predatory miners and loggers. In some remote areas, Colombian drug traffickers have been using Indians to transport narcotics.

Industrial labor unions are well organized and politically connected, many are corrupt. The right to strike is recognized, and there are special labor courts. Hundreds of strikes have taken place in recent years against attempts to privatize state industries.

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