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.
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.
Mr. Bolsonaro himself recorded a short video for her campaign.
“This year, without a doubt, is her year!” Mr. Bolsonaro said in the message, flashing a thumbs-up as a slightly bewildered-looking Ms. Barbosa stood next to him.
She was enthusiastic, she said: “At first, it all went according to script.”
But as the October election approached, she began to realize local party leaders were showing more interest in the campaign funds allocated to her as a female candidate than to her proposals.
Come October, Mr. Bolsonaro won the presidency. But Ms. Barbosa, disillusioned, filed a formal complaint with public prosecutors in December, accusing party leaders of trying to use her candidacy to siphon money to male candidates.
That helped instigate a broader investigation into the matter and presented a significant challenge to Mr. Bolsonaro’s recently formed administration.
Deeply entrenched attitudes help keep women out of politics in Brazil, despite progressive laws intended to change that.
For the last decade, the country has required that 30 percent of each party’s candidates be women, but that has done little to boost the participation of women in state and national legislatures.
Parties often ran female candidates — as required — but gave them little or no resources. In some cases, the women were surprised to learn they were on the ballot.
In local elections in 2016, more than 18,000 names on ballots did not receive any votes — suggesting they were likely “ghost” candidates. Of those, 86 percent were women.
A law passed before the most recent elections demanded that parties allocate at least 30 percent of taxpayer-financed electoral funds to women. Yet many female candidates still performed poorly, with the proportion of women lawmakers inching up to 15 percent from 11 percent.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who is notorious for misogynist comments he made as a congressman, has shrugged off the imbalance.
On International Women’s Day, he joked that his government had achieved gender parity for the first time in Brazil’s history, because each of the two female ministers in the 22-member cabinet was “equivalent to 10 men.”
On the same day in neighboring Argentina, which ranks 18 out of 193 countries in terms of female participation in Congress, President Mauricio Macri signed a law that requires that half of each party’s candidates be women.
When the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo first broke the story that some P.S.L. leaders appeared to have used women as ghost candidates, Mr. Bolsonaro fired one of his top aides, Secretary General Gustavo Bebianno, who was accused that as the president of the party, he was responsible for the distribution of campaign funds.
Mr. Bebianno denies any wrongdoing and says all of the funding allocations were approved by electoral authorities.
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.”