Was Money to Help Women in Brazil’s Politics Funneled to Men?

Was Money to Help Women in Brazil’s Politics Funneled to Men?

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Cleuzenir Barbosa, a retired teacher, was fed up with Brazil’s corrupt politics. She was also an avid supporter of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right politician who won the presidency last year on the promise to clean up the capital.

So when a member of Mr. Bolsonaro’s party asked her to run for a state legislature seat, she was ecstatic — so ecstatic, Ms. Barbosa said, that she did not stop to consider why the party would be interested in a candidate like her, a community organizer with no political experience.

“It was all perfect, I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Barbosa said in a telephone interview. “I was full of expectations of a new way of doing things, full of plans.”

Now, prosecutors are investigating whether the candidacy of Ms. Barbosa and at least four other women who ran as part of Mr. Bolsonaro’s party represented a new take on illegal campaign financing, a form of corruption with deep roots in Brazilian politics.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s conservative Social Liberal Party, or P.S.L., is one of at least five parties being investigated by prosecutors for enlisting obscure female candidates in order to tap money from a taxpayer-financed electoral fund meant to increase the number of women in politics.

The party leaders are suspected of then asking the women to kick back the money, which would be used to promote men. No charges have been filed.

The scandal has led to the ouster of one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet members and has left a second one teetering, calling into question the president’s commitment to cleaning up Brazilian politics.

It comes at a vulnerable moment in his presidency, when his popularity ratings are plummeting and his government is struggling to get signature proposals — overhauls of the penal code and the social security system — through Congress.

It has also drawn attention to how unequal men’s and women’s participation in politics remains in Brazil, which lags behind nearly all of its Latin American neighbors in the number of women in office.

Worldwide, Brazil ranks 133 out of 193 countries in terms of female representation in legislative bodies, below Jordan and just above Bhutan, Chad and Egypt.

Taking advantage of resources aimed at promoting greater female representation has fueled anger even among the P.S.L. party faithful.

“All of the embezzlement needs to be investigated but I am particularly indignant about information that women were used,” said Janaína Paschoal, an outspoken conservative who ran on the P.S.L. ticket in São Paulo and was elected a state legislator. “Those possibly involved need to be removed from office.”

Although several parties are under investigation by prosecutors, the P.S.L. has come under particular scrutiny because Mr. Bolsonaro is the president and ran as an alternative to the corrupt parties that had been in power.

“The fact that the P.S.L. is falling back on old political tricks is not that surprising,” said Monica de Bolle, a Brazilian economist who heads the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins University. “But the female aspect is really important.”

For Ms. Barbosa, it all started with an unexpected call from a politician from the president’s party, who asked if she wanted to run for office.

She drove 14 hours from her home in Governador Valadares to the capital, Brasília. There she was greeted by the crème da la crème of the P.S.L., and formally invited to be a candidate by Marcelo Henrique Teixeira Dias, then the regional president of the party.

Ms. Barbosa said that immediately after receiving $16,000 from the electoral fund, P.S.L. operators ordered her to transfer most of the money to specific accounts.

She said she refused, and sent numerous complaints to the regional party president, Mr. Teixeira Dias, as well as handing over relevant bank statements and WhatsApp messages to the authorities.

In a written statement, Mr. Teixeira Dias, who is now the tourism minister, denied any knowledge of the misuse of campaign funds.

“It is necessary to wait to see what is real and what is not real,” said Justice Minister Sergio Moro, a former federal judge who built a reputation for zealously prosecuting corrupt politicians.

Ms. Barbosa said she doesn’t hold Mr. Bolsonaro responsible. But just three days after going to the police, she packed her bags and moved to Portugal, where she is seeking political asylum.

“In Brazil, women who denounce their husbands for abuse are killed and politicians who denounce corruption end up dead,” she said. “Anybody who is a whistle-blower is vulnerable.”

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