Michel Temer, President of Brazil, fears ending up in prison on charges of corruption. It could happen. It’s time for justice and the Odebrechts of this world are singing La Traviata to reduce their sentences. Popular fantasy imagines Temer, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in the same cell opened to them by the police’s Operation Lava Jato.
Let’s take a broad look at the familial-cultural backgrounds of the three presidents.
First, Temer, teacher of Constitutional Law, son of a Lebanese couple, Maronite Catholic, who migrated to Brazil to escape the Turkish upheaval generated after World War One. The family — as usually happens with Maronite Catholics, descendants of the mythical Phoenicians — did well, economically speaking, in the land that welcomed them.
Second, Lula, a labor leader in the metals industry, whose father was a confirmed alcoholic, is Brazilian-Portuguese on all four sides. His formal education was scant but he is very smart and persevering. Has been the poorest of all the Brazilian presidents in the past 100 years and unquestionably the most popular, despite his notorious inability to stay focused and understand complex issues.
Third, Dilma Rousseff, an economist born to a family that made its wealth in real estate, the daughter of a communist Bulgarian lawyer who came to Brazil fleeing from repression. Her mother was a Brazilian teacher and Dilma, when young, joined violent radical groups that opposed the military dictatorship.
Three persons from very different origins united in corruption. Why? Because Brazil and almost all of the Latin America (and Portugal and Spain, which begat them in the New World) are culturally corrupt territories.
Moreover, three fourths of the planet — all of Africa, almost all of Asia, and southern and south-western Europe — are formed by nations whose societies have practiced diverse forms of corruption ever since (slowly, 10,000 years ago) states began to form after the agricultural revolution.
What’s novel, what’s strange is non-corruption, an unforeseen consequence of a bold slogan that ended up in all Constitutions and codes of conduct, even though it was seldom respected: “All citizens are equal before the law,” which also meant that all citizens were obligated to submit to the authority of the law. But, if all persons have the same duties and rights, and if rank does not grant privileges, how is social hierarchy established?
Ideally, in three ways.
The political answer is based on democracy, based on majority rule, although with constitutional limitations to avoid trampling the minorities. One accedes to the privilege of presidency by the grace of the people, in balloting conceived to designate the public servants.
The social answer is meritocracy. Posts are occupied not by lineage but by preparation. To be a marquis or his son is not enough to lead a war or to not serve in the militia. Lineage cannot be invoked to attain or reject responsibilities.
The economic answer is the market. By their choices, consumers select the goods and services they wish to acquire. This choice makes some rich, destroys others and increases social differences. It is imperfect, but it’s better than the arbitrary choice of “winners” or “losers” made by functionaries and bureaucrats generally in search of bribes or illegal commissions.
In the modern world this began to happen in the late 18th Century in the United States, precisely because of the abandonment by England, a result of the success of the American Revolution.
The result of this social experiment was a successful republic, partially interrupted by the Civil War (1861-1865), begun with 4 million Americans, federated in 13 semi-independent states, braided by solid institutions, which has stood its ground for 230 years, counted from the approval of the 1787 Constitution.
Can this model be imitated? Yes, but only if the imitators understand the extreme importance of the initial premise: all people are equal before the law … but all must obey it.
Of course the U.S. example can be emulated: it has been done, gradually, by the world’s 25 most prosperous and happy nations, where there is zero tolerance to corruption. But it all starts with taking the starting point seriously. That’s what almost the entire world fails to understand.
Published in Spanish by El Blog de Montaner on Sunday June 25th, 2017.