by Isabela Messias, Co Editor and Writer at Brazil Talk
It is 9:30am, and the “Institution-Building, Governance and Compliance in Brazil”conference organized and co-hosted by Columbia University just finished setting things up to receive Sergio Moro, the federal judge who is heading the Car Wash operation, also known as Lava Jato — the largest corruption investigation in Brazil’s history. The room is full of students, academics, scholars and journalists, waiting for Moro to go up on stage. As he does, however, the unexpected happens: amidst thunderous claps, outraged protests erupt from the audience. One woman, who had to be escorted out, yells “Biased! Coup!”. Another person joins the chorus, reading as loudly as possible a protest letter. On the opposite third person, dressed in a Brazilian football t-shirt, angrily holds a sign that says “In Moro We Trust”, and screams “shut up” while booing. Needless to say, it was mayhem, which delayed Moro’s statement for at least twenty minutes.What this situation shows, however, is a lot more dangerous than mere embarrassment, and can have a lot more consequences than a twenty-minute delay. In a nutshell, this is Brazil. High polarization and personalization of politics have rendered dialogue nearly impossible – Brazil has been loyally following the international pattern of decreasing dialogue and increasing radicalization. On one side, a group protests the political changes, arguing that the Car Wash investigations, as well as the impeachment, are biased and have defeating the Worker’s Party (PT) as a goal. On the other extreme, a group praises Car Wash as the best thing that happened in Brazilian politics, and welcomes the impeachment on a near-purgatory chase of the former president Dilma Roussef. For these groups, with little variance, Judge Moro is both devil and hero, respectively.
These groups do not talk among themselves, either. El País researched profiles of participants of “pro-impeachment” and “against coup” protests, and realized that both groups do not read or share content from the same media outlets, or follow the same pages. Each group consumes information from its own sources and there is little, if any, exchange between the two. This tendency is further strengthened by the personal perspective that politics takes, in which politicians and public figures are either demonized or sanctified. This is what has happened to Moro, Lula, Dilma, and many other protagonists of the latest happenings in Brazil.
Our team, at Brazil Talk, had the opportunity to talk to Judge Moro, and to ask him directly about his thoughts on this context.
“This is not specific to Brazil”, Judge Moro claimed. “Look at Italy with Antonino Di Matteo (…) there are cases even here in the United States. But if we want to counter it, the way out is to strengthen our public institutions”.
Indeed, this vision was corroborated by speakers at the following panel at Columbia. Otaviano Canuto, Executive Director for the World Bank, for instance, stated that “Car Wash will be a contribution to Brazil as long as it is only the beginning”. He went on to explain how there is a strong need to promote structural changes in the Brazilian political and economic system, fostering an environment that is not conducive of corruption and that is held together by strong institutions. Lisa Schineller, Managing Director from Standard & Poor’s, agreed with this vision, echoing that the legacy of Car Wash will be valuable if there is sustainable change after it, change that can balance the political fallout from the investigations.
Overall, the message is clear: Brazil we needs to improve the system, and we need strong institutions – not strong leaders, not heroes, is the answer. But how do we guarantee that can it be done? Rather than arguing over one or two public figures, how do we strengthen institutions? How does Brazil we ensure that the “Car Wash” Operation is not just one isolated event?
Academic institutions like Columbia University, however, both in and outside of Brazil, have an important role to play in attempting to answer these questions. Academic settings need to promote debate, and explore different points of view. This event on Governance in Brazil was an example of an opportunity to do so, that might have been missed not only by those who protested, but also by Columbia. If, on one hand, yelling from both sides of a room did not help protesters, on the other, it is fair to say that The event would have benefited from presenting a coherent, dissident point of view, to counterbalance the agreeing voices that led the discussion. As a letter from the New School group of students and scholars points out, the event was largely one-sided, with no dissident views coming from speakers or organizers. And academic events can certainly contribute a lot more to finding solutions when they are truly inclusive, with opposing and complementing views.
This is why it is so important to foster initiatives such as Brazil Talk, which aims at incentivizing debate and bring different perspectives to the table – often times also presenting innovative solutions for current issues. Only by allowing ourselves to truly listen and understand different points of view, we will be able to come up with joint answers to our nation’s problems. Institutions will not be strengthened on their own – it takes a common, cohesive effort, that will only come with public awareness and debate.