Capital: Brasilia
Population: 195,100,000

Political Rights Score: 2
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Status: Free


President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva remained extraordinarily popular in 2008 with approval ratings of 78 percent. He owed his political strength primarily to the economic growth experienced by Brazil since he took office in 2003, which has resulted in an unprecedented increase in the middle class. Municipal elections held in October 2008 left da Silva's Workers' Party (PT) in a somewhat better position ahead of the 2009 presidential race, as it achieved gains over the center-right opposition parties. However, the PT lost its bid for the mayoralty of Sao Paulo, providing a boost for the opposition. The presidential field remained wide open, as da Silva himself was constitutionally banned from running for a third term.

After gaining independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil retained a monarchical system until a republic was established in 1889. Democratic governance was interrupted by long periods of authoritarian rule, especially under the military regime that was in control from 1964 to 1985, after which elected civilian rule was restored. Democracy in Brazil then gradually took root, with peaceful transitions between democratically elected administrations. However, civilian rule has been marred by frequent corruption scandals. One scandal eventually led Congress in 1992 to impeach President Fernando Collor de Mello, who had been elected in 1989.

In early 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso – a market-oriented, centrist finance minister in the interim government that followed Collor de Mello's resignation – forged a three-party, center-right coalition around his Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). Cardoso won the presidency in October of that year, and in 1995 he initiated the highly successful real plan – a currency-stabilization program that included fiscal reform, privatization of state enterprises, and a new currency pegged to the U.S. dollar. He also ushered in a new era of dialogue with international human rights and good-governance groups. His popular tenure in office allowed him to secure a constitutional amendment permitting presidential reelection. In 1998, Cardoso handily won a second term in a rematch against his 1994 opponent, former labor leader and political prisoner Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, of the left-leaning Workers' Party (PT).

Da Silva ran for president for the fourth time in 2002, attacking the effects of globalization on the poor and Brazil's high levels of foreign debt and unemployment. He received more votes than any presidential candidate in Brazilian history, beating Jose Serra, a center-left former PSDB health minister. Amid high expectations as Brazil's first leftist leader, da Silva began his presidential term in January 2003 by promising orthodox economic policies and meaningful social programs. He was able to maintain a stable economy while also preserving cordial relations with the United States, and quickly established himself as one of the world's foremost voices for developing nations. In March 2005, in a move that signaled Brazil's economic recovery, the government announced that it did not need to renew a standby credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Da Silva maintained his campaign commitment to social welfare, initiating "Bolsa Familia," a cash-transfer program that benefited approximately one-fourth of the population, as well as "ProUni," a fund providing scholarships for private colleges to low-income students. Da Silva also continued Brazil's internationally recognized public health campaign; over the previous decade, it had stabilized the country's HIV/AIDS epidemic, which affected an estimated 600,000 residents.

Da Silva was reelected with a comfortable margin in the October 2006 presidential runoff, principally as a result of his popularity among working-class voters. In spite of the fact that the legislature was widely seen as the most corrupt in the country's history, the PT did not suffer electoral losses in Congress.

In August 2007, the government released a 500-page report that outlined the fate of political dissidents who were "disappeared" by the military between 1961 and 1988. The report was the result of an 11-year investigation led by the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances. Because Brazil, thanks to a 1979 amnesty law, had never tried those responsible for these atrocities, the report was viewed as a step toward political reconciliation.

A series of major government corruption scandals that began in 2004 continued through 2008. The highlights of the past several years included the mensalao (monthly stipend) vote-buying scandal and the "bloodsucker" affair, which involved government officials selling overpriced ambulances to municipalities. A May 2007 undercover operation, codenamed Operation Razor, resulted in the arrest of 46 individuals for accepting kickbacks for public-works contracts. Those arrested included several members of Congress as well as a former governor. Yet another scandal involved kickbacks to the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros of the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), which forced him to resign his post. The principal scandal of 2008 involved the arrest of a well-known businessman, Daniel Dantas, on charges of corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering. The arrest and complex nature of the charges created a rift between the Supreme Court and the executive. This problem was exacerbated by the discovery in September 2008 that members of Brazil's intelligence agency had illegally spied on Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, and a presidential adviser.

The da Silva administration attempted to push through several long-needed reforms during the year. A tax reform bill was sent to Congress in February 2008, and a preliminary political reform bill aiming to regulate campaign financing and increase party loyalty was introduced in August. However, both measures stalled due to the run-up to October municipal elections. Tax reform was scheduled to be considered again in the lower house of Congress in early 2009.

The second round of the local voting was held on October 26, and the ruling coalition won nearly two-thirds of the mayoral races, a 36 percent increase from the 2004 municipal elections. However, in spite of da Silva's explicit backing, the PT's candidate for mayor of Sao Paulo, Marta Suplicy, lost to incumbent Gilberto Kassab of the conservative Democratic Party. As mayors are traditionally important vote-gatherers for presidential elections, Kassab's victory represented an important loss for the PT.

Under da Silva's presidency, Brazil has become a major regional power and a respected international actor. Within the region, it serves as a moderate leftist alternative to Venezuelan radicalism; on the global level it is a leader in the Group of 20 and a serious candidate for permanent membership in the UN Security Council should that body be reformed. Finally, its roles as the world's most efficient producer of ethanol and as steward of the Amazonian rain forest make it a significant player on the issue of climate change.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Brazil is an electoral democracy. The 2006 national elections and the October 2008 municipal elections were free and fair. The current constitution, which took effect in 1985 and was heavily amended in 1988, provides for a president, to be elected for four years, and a bicameral National Congress. The Senate's 81 members serve eight-year terms, with a portion coming up for election every four years, and the 513-member Chamber of Deputies is elected for four years. A constitutional amendment adopted in 1997 permits presidents to seek a second term, which supporters said would enhance accountability.

In the wake of the 2006 elections, the four largest Brazilian political parties, comprising 70 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and over half of the Senate seats, were the centrist PMDB, the leftist PT, the conservative Democratic Party (the former Liberal Front Party, or PFL, which changed its name in March 2007), and the center-left PSDB. Fourteen other parties are also represented in Congress.

Despite a constitutional right of access to public information, the country does not have specific laws to regulate and guarantee transparency. Corruption is a serious and seemingly growing problem in Brazil, which was ranked 80 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. The task of combating pervasive corruption is complicated by weak party loyalty and legal loopholes that allow those who resign from any public office to later seek reelection. However, in November 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE) that outlawed postelection party switching – a major step toward eliminating this decades-old problem.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The press is privately owned, but foreigners can acquire only a 30 percent stake in a media company and are restricted in their ability to influence editorial decisions and management selection. 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. At the same time, reporters – especially those who focus on organized crime, corruption, or impunity issues – are frequently the targets of threats and occasionally even killings. The government does not impose restrictions on the use of the internet.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected, as is the right to strike. Industrial labor unions are well organized. Although they are politically connected, unions in Brazil tend to be freer from political party control than those in most other Latin American countries. Labor-related issues are adjudicated in a system of special labor courts. Intimidation of rural union leaders continues to be a problem.

The country's largely independent but weak judiciary is overburdened, plagued by chronic corruption, and virtually powerless in the face of organized crime. Because the judiciary uses its independence above all to resist change, there has been less progress in judicial reform in Brazil than in any other large country in the region. In addition, judges regularly employ legal formalisms to overturn government modernization efforts, including those aimed at privatizing state-owned industries and reforming the ineffective public-welfare system.

Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and the world's highest death rate by firearms. Most violent crime in the country is directly or indirectly related to the illegal drug trade. The highly organized and armed drug gangs frequently fight against the military police, as well as private militias comprised of off-duty police officers, prison guards, and firefighters. These militias have instituted their own form of extortion, charging citizens a mandatory tax for ousting drug traffickers from their areas and intimidating human rights activists. While the militias still control and terrorize countless favelas, or shantytowns, a crackdown in the summer of 2008 led to the arrest of several important militia leaders.

Brazil's police are among the world's most violent and corrupt, and the violence has only increased in recent years. According to official estimates, police in Rio de Janeiro state killed 694 people in the first half of 2007, one-third more than the same period in 2006. Torture is used systematically to extract confessions from suspects, and extrajudicial killings are portrayed as shootouts with dangerous criminals. An investigation by an independent committee found overwhelming evidence that many of the killings reported from a May 2006 crime wave in Sao Paulo were in fact summary executions by the police. In the rare instances when police officers are indicted for such abuses, convictions are not obtained; typically the charges are dismissed for "lack of evidence." The situation is complicated by the fact that this "no prisoner" approach by the police often enjoys considerable support by favela dwellers, the principal victims of gang violence. The National Committee for the Prevention and Control of Torture, which was created in June 2006, is tasked with designing mechanisms to minimize torture and inspecting detention centers.

The prison system remains anarchic, overcrowded, and largely unfit for human habitation. Human rights groups charge that torture and other inhumane treatment common to most of the country's detention centers turn petty thieves into hardened criminals. According to official estimates, Brazil's prisons hold approximately 420,000 inmates despite a design capacity of only 220,000. A commission charged with investigating problems with the country's prisons was established in August 2007 after 25 inmates died during a riot in a Minas Gerais prison.

Racial discrimination, long officially denied as a problem in Brazil, began to receive both recognition and remediation from President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva during his first term. Blacks earn less than 50 percent of the average earnings of other citizens, and they suffer from the highest homicide, poverty, and illiteracy rates. In a precedent-setting series of actions, da Silva upon taking office named four Afro-Brazilians to his cabinet, appointed the country's first Afro-Brazilian Supreme Court justice, and pressed for the adoption of a Racial Equality Statute to redeem his pledge that Afro-Brazilians would make up at least one-third of federal employees within five years. He has also expanded affirmative-action programs; many universities now have quotas for Afro-Brazilian students, stirring great controversy.

The owners of large estates control nearly 60 percent of the country's arable land, while the poorest 30 percent of the population hold less than 2 percent. In rural areas, land invasions are organized by the grassroots Landless Workers' Movement (MST), which claims that the seized land is unused or illegally held. However, many of the occupied properties are legally owned by others. The courts have increasingly supported the eviction of the squatters, and some owners have resisted invasions with force. The MST is not formally affiliated with the PT, but it has enjoyed some PT support.

Although Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 and a relatively succuessful anti-slavery taskforce exists, between 6,000 and 8,000 rural laborers still work under slavery-like conditions. Landowners who enslave workers face two to eight years in prison, in addition to fines. However, the fines are minimal, and as of the end of 2008, no one had been punished for these crimes.

Beginning in 2003, the government promised to demarcate large swaths of ancestral lands as the first step in creating indigenous reserves. In response to strong political pressure, da Silva established a Commission on Indigenous Policy in April 2007. The Supreme Court in August 2008 delayed ruling on whether an indigenous group had to share its previously demarcated reservation in the northern Amazon region with nonindigenous rice farmers. The decision will set the precedent for over 100 outstanding native land cases. Violence and discrimination against Brazil's estimated indigenous population of 460,000 continues, half of the indigenous population lives in poverty, and most indigenous communities lack adequate sanitation and education services.

A 2001 decree granted same-sex partners the same rights as married couples with respect to pensions, social security benefits, and taxation. While laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, a tremendous advance by Latin American standards in and of itself, violence against homosexuals remains a problem.

In 2003, a new legal code made women equal to men under the law for the first time in the country's history. Moreover, the August 2006 "Maria da Penha" law aimed to reduce violence against women by creating shelters and specially designed police centers for victims. Nevertheless, violence against women and children is a common problem, and protective laws are rarely enforced. Forced prostitution of children is widespread. Child labor is also prevalent – a 2007 International Labor Organization (ILO) report revealed that there were three million child workers in Brazil – and laws against it are not applied effectively. In response, the government and the ILO launched an initiative in December 2007 to strengthen the global fight against child labor; these efforts place Brazil ahead of most Latin American countries, even though deficiencies certainly still exist.

Brazil is a source for victims of both domestic and international human trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department's 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, Brazil still does not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking, and prosecutions for forced labor remain deficient. However, the report notes the government's significant efforts to improve its human trafficking record. Convictions of trafficking offenders increased during 2007, and in a November 2006 ruling, the Supreme Court increased the federal government's ability to punish those who utilize or traffic in slave labor.

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