Understanding the culture of corruption in Brazil
Brazil is undergoing an unprecedented national investigation into a monumental money laundering scheme called ‘Operation Car Wash’ (‘Lava-Jato’). Media updates have become part of everyday life in recent years and stimulated Brazilians to discuss corruption routinely, much more than they used to, and people are increasingly interested in understanding why it’s so pervasive. We often hear Brazilians say they believe “corruption is cultural” and that a ‘corrupt mindset’ is the main driver behind large and scandalous illicit acts (aka the types investigated by Operation Car wash). Inspired by this current context and a recent study Flamingo São Paulo conducted for Transparency International, the leading global coalition against corruption, we delved deep into the topic in order to try and understand why Brazilians believe they are culturally inclined to corruption.
Brazilians’ understanding of corruption often places it in relation to abusive Portuguese colonizers, who instilled a permissive culture locally. When the Portuguese came to Brazil in the 16th Century they delegated the occupation of land to people beyond the Crown; over the years, benefits were used to encourage them to leave Portugal and make their land claims in the colony. This enabled the structuring of a society weak in institutions and governed by a handful of powerful people who were moved by financial gain and who operated in a system built on personal favours and nepotistic exchanges.
For Brazilians, the abuse of power that moulded the nation is reflected in the petty corruption that has become common practice in the country. Acts like offering a police officer money (note that Brazilians would rarely say ‘bribing’) to avoid a possible traffic fine, using a fake student ID to get discounts, queue barging, short-changing and paying a random person who claims he’s watching parked cars on the street (for fear that if you don’t pay he may slit your tyres), are all small but significant manifestations of Brazil’s ‘corruption culture’. The fact that there’s an accepted and widely used term – ‘jeitinho brasileiro’ (the Brazilian way) – for finding a way around things and getting away with them, shows just how ingrained this mindset is.
It’s common belief that corruption is deeply rooted in Brazil and it has an active role in defining the society. There’s a general understanding that by subscribing to these small everyday acts of corruption, every citizen has his share of responsibility in contributing to creating an environment in which the large-scale institutionalised corruption that is currently being investigated in the political sphere was able to install itself. Whether grand or small, corruption is corruption, and when it takes place in various different spheres, it’s indicative of a society in which corruption can be understood as ubiquitous, despite its different facets.
Discussing corruption in Brazil inevitably leads to ethical questions. There’s a strong belief locally that the only way to fight it is through irreproachable attitudes and values. In this light, corruption can be understood as a defining characteristic of how Brazilians see themselves as a nation. It’s often referred to as the ‘Cancer of Brazil’, the root of all the country’s problems, but also the key to unlocking Brazil’s future. Brazilians feel that if they could free themselves from a corrupt mindset, the country might have a chance to grow and prosper.
Redefining corruption culture
While corruption in itself is not unique to Brazil, Brazilians often consider it a 'Brazilian thing'. As they hold themselves collectively responsible for it, to a certain extent, the current fight against corruption is, above all, a demonstration of the population’s yearning for meaningful cultural and ethical change – the belief that only a profound change in attitude could lead to a long-term and effective solution. However, Brazilians often adopt a fatalistic attitude in the fight against corruption because they believe Brazilians are ‘corrupt by nature’. The Carwash investigations might be contributing to a change in this perception. As Brazilians see powerful politicians and businessmen on trial and going to jail, their faith in the legal system is slowly being restored and giving them hope. In this context, morals and ethics are under scrutiny in Brazil and it’s time to contribute to a positive change in mindset and behaviours, leaving behind attitudes that for so long have defined aspects of Brazilian culture. This is an era of transparency and transformation. Brands, businesses and people that actively contribute and support the positive changes people are striving for will establish meaningful relationships and help form contemporary culture in Brazil.
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- Article by Carmen Beer