Notebook

February 20, 2013 7:17 pm

A spa treatment for Brazilian corruption

A politician became the target of a derisive petition signed by 1.5m people, writes Joe Leahy

If 1,583,585 (and counting) people signed a petition saying how much they hated you, how would you feel? Stressed, probably. And what would you do about it? Well, a spa might help, although with so many people saying bad things about you, it would have to be a damn good one.

That is what Renan Calheiros, the president of Brazil’s Senate, did last week during carnival. His story began a few weeks ago as a rumble that gradually turned into a roar. I should have known it was coming – Brazil needs at least one corruption scandal every three months or the political pages will be empty.

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But Mr Calheiros has excelled even by the brazen standards of Brazilian politics. The controversy began when his PMDB party, a collection of regional politicians whose apparent love of pork stands out in a Congress stuffed with people ravenous for the stuff, reinstated him as Senate chief for the third time.

They saw nothing wrong in this. After all, he was only forced to step down from his previous stint as head of the Senate in 2007 over a corruption scandal which is still unresolved. In that affair, he allegedly accepted money from a construction company to pay maintenance for a child he had from an affair with a journalist, Mônica Veloso. Police also alleged he faked receipts on cattle sales to try to convince the Senate he could have paid himself. For her part, Ms Veloso bared all in Playboy, ensuring the scandal’s place in history.

Banx cartoon

She succeeded. Brazilians did not forget. The comeback by Mr Calheiros, who denies wrongdoing, roused public rage. A website urged Brazilians to sign a petition objecting to his return – if more than 1.36m, or 1 per cent of the population, sign they have the right to present it in Congress. They have got that number, although it is unclear if an internet petition is acceptable. “We cannot remain silent before such an atrocity,” the website Avaaz said of Mr Calheiros’s re-emergence.

So how did Mr Calheiros respond to this? “Mobilisation through the internet is legal and healthy, especially for the young,” he says. “I was a student leader once, as everyone knows, and I used all of the tools available then to protest.”

Then, beside himself with worry, he nipped off to the south of Brazil with his wife to a spa known as Kurotel, apparently one of the world’s top 10. For only R$22,000 ($11,200), they were attended by every type of “ologist”, from psychologists to dermatologists. And it all came with their own elevator to spare them the inconvenience of bumping into any nasty citizens.

. . .

Rat in the Senate

There was some hope last year that we would see fewer scandals in Brazil after the supreme court, led by its first black president Joaquim Barbosa, sentenced senior politicians to jail for corruption in a case known as the Mensalão, or big monthly payment. Those convicted included former top officials of the ruling Workers’ party. The Calheiros affair has put paid to that hope.

But one thing encouraging anti-corruption activists is that Mr Barbosa’s niece, Ariadina Barbosa Gomes Oliveira, seems to be following in his footsteps. She was fired as a Senate intern for posting a picture of a dead rat on Facebook. Apparently, the pest expired in the Senate. But the offending part was the caption she attached to the picture – “and we thought the only problem here was Renan Calheiros”.

She must not have wanted the job – or otherwise she still has a lot to learn about politics.

. . .

Buffett’s beach boys

Anyone who might have been wondering how investor Jorge Paulo Lemann and his partners, Marcel Telles and Carlos Sicupira, got so rich, pay attention. Mr Lemann is Brazil’s wealthiest man and the others are not far behind him. Together, they have joined Warren Buffett to buy Heinz. They are also famed for creating AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer by sales.

But while they are renowned for building a good business, people say much of their billions comes from cost-cutting. That might explain why, while most other elite fund managers in Rio de Janeiro have their offices in ultra-exclusive Leblon, two blocks from the beach, 3G Capital is holed up inland on Rua Humaitá. Perfectly acceptable, mind you, near the city’s pretty lagoon, but not Leblon or even Ipanema. At least it shows that in spite of being beach-loving Rio boys, Mr Lemann and his buddies put return on equity before surfing.

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