“Let them eat cake,” French Queen Marie Antoinette famously told starving peasants in 1789, upon being informed they had no money to buy bread. 

In Brazil, this scenario is playing out in a similar fashion, more than 200 years later. 

When asked about food prices for the poorest workers in economically-struggling Brazil, one legislator, Pedro Fernandes, showed a similar lack of tact.

“Let's set a price that allows them to at least eat every other day,” Fernandes said in November of last year.  

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Fernandes is a member of Brazil’s ruling party, whose leader, Michel Temer, was indicted for corruption on Monday. Temer, the president of Brazil, is accused of receiving over $11 million in bribes in a country where the poorest people literally cannot afford bread. 

Temer has only been in office for a year, after taking over when former President Dilma Rousseff was impeached for manipulating government accounts.

The corruption charges against Temer stem from an incident that’s been called “Operation Car Wash,” in which undercover tapes recorded the president of the world’s ninth largest economy allegedly calling for hush money to silence a former political ally currently in prison for, you guessed it, corruption. 

Image: Flickr/Beto Barata/PR

Now, Brazil’s Attorney General Rodrigo Janot is formally accusing Temer of corruption, obstruction of justice and being part of a criminal organization, AP reports

In corruption-plagued Brazil, it has been the most vulnerable who have suffered most. Under Temer, who holds an approval rating of 7%, austerity measures have hit the country’s teeming underclass while elected officials have filled their coffers with bribes. 

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Brazil’s unemployment rate is hovering around 14%, the country ranks among the highest for income inequality in the world, and since 2015 public debt is on the rise, even as the country’s leaders are increasing their salaries by 26%

“Billions upon billions of dollars have been stolen from the Brazilian public,” the Intercept wrote in April. “And yet, even in the wake of this oozing and incomparable elite corruption, the price that is being paid falls overwhelmingly on the victims — ordinary Brazilians — while the culprits prosper.” 

In countries like Brazil, corruption and poverty go hand-in-hand. 

“The links between corruption and poverty affect both individuals and businesses,” Michael Johnston, a professor of political science at Colgate University, wrote, “and they run in both directions: poverty invites corruption, while corruption deepens poverty.”

Under President Temer, ordinary Brazilians have had to weather attacks against public spending and massive social welfare cuts. The government has proposed a 20-year federal spending cap, which, the UNHCR has argued, would drastically reduce spending on education and prevent the country from providing an education to the more than 3.8 million children who are currently out of school.

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Brazil was once considered one of the world’s four rising economies (or BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India, China), but allegations of corruption have derailed consecutive presidencies, spooked investors, and sent the economy into a tailspin — all of which explains Fernandes’ suggestion that poor Brazilians eat every other day to fill the economic holes left in the wake of the political scandals. In a corrupt society, the onus falls on the poorest to bail out the rich. 

This is why the Global Goals for Sustainable Development enshrine “peace, justice, and strong institutions” as one of 17 mandates for ensuring an equitable future for all.   

In Brazil, as in countries around the world — from Turkey, to Russia, to the United States — weeding out corruption is necessary to embark on the difficult path to ending extreme poverty. 


Demand Equity

Brazil’s President Charged With Corruption: Why That Matters for Global Citizens

By Phineas Rueckert