With Clown Noses and an Iron Lady Brazil Tackles Corruption

September 9th, 2011

On September 7th, 1822 Prince Pedro, the Portuguese Prince of Brazil who represented the monarchy in the Brazilian colony, received a letter. It was from the Princess Maria Leopoldina, his wife, and it advised him to give the county its independence after nearly two years of rebellion. Prince Pedro heeded his wife’s advice [always the right move]. Later that day, standing on the shores of the Ipiranga River in Sao Paolo, Pedro declared Brazil’s independence, ending 322 years of colonial rule.

According to legend (and artistic recreations of the event) a very refined looking Pedro, dressed in a military suit, brandishing a sword, and mounted on a horse, announced to a cheering crowd: “Armbands off, soldiers. Hail to the independence, to freedom and to the separation ofBrazil. For my blood, my honor, my God, I swear to give Brazil freedom. Independence or death!”

On Wednesday, exactly 189 years after this moment, tens of thousands of Brazilians demonstrated in the nation’s capital, rallying against endemic corruption that now plagues their country. On external appearances, the movement wasn’t nearly as refined. These protesters wore face paint and large red clown noses, some chanted slogans, and others gathered outside government ministries with mops and buckets in a symbolic gesture to “wash away” corruption.

The protest, in large part, was in support of efforts by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff (another powerful woman). Over the last eight months that Rousseff has been in power, she has already sacked four ministers—three for corruption or ethics scandals. They’re calling it “spring cleaning.” And for her courage and resolve Rousseff has been dubbed the Iron Lady.

But it was not the Iron Lady who organized these supportive protests nor was it her political party. In fact, it doesn’t appear to have been any cohesive organization at all. In fact, it would appear demonstrators organized the rally with social networking sites. Most of the participants were students and members of the middle class who have grown weary of the country’s endemic corruption.

Some organizations have voiced support for the movement and so has the country’s Justice Minister Eduardo Cardoso, who described the protest as “an opportunity for everyone to fulfill their role as citizens.”

Unlike in many other countries, Brazil does not have much of a history of mass public demonstrations. According to the Financial Times, the last real, mass political protest was in 1992. It was also a gathering against corruption, although this demonstration was in support of impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello. As one protester put it: “Brazilians are always complaining but never leave their houses to do anything about it, so it’s good to finally have a non-partisan movement to show our indignation.”

While the clown noses and mops may not be as glamorous as swords and horses, they are of no less significance. In fact, it might be even more. The problem of corruption will not be solved with top-down public effort alone. Such a strategy is doomed to fail, as eventually it will lose momentum and bow to the interests of the deeply entrenched and corrupt officials themselves. No, a sustained solution to the corruption problem requires political will and public support. And with their peculiar combination of clown noses, an Iron Lady, and Facebook, Brazil seems to have—for the moment at least—attained both. We can only hope that they won’t stop now.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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