Brazil's Senator from Alcoa Hangs by a Sliver

Sen. José Sarney Receives Aluminum Eagle from President of Alcoa
Sen. José Sarney Receives Aluminum Eagle from President of Alcoa
José Sarney rose to power in his home state of Maranhão during Brazil's military dictatorship. He ascended to the presidency of Brazil in 1985 when Tancredo Neves, the president-elect, died on the eve of his taking office. Now, his position as president of the Senate, where he wields power second only to that of Lula, is threatened by revelations of abuse of power in secret financial transactions favoring family members and political cronies, and even leaders of his own party are calling for him to step down.

Sarney's fate is of critical importance for the Brazilian dams industry, for Sarney has made Brazil's dam building plans in the Amazon and the promotion of the aluminum industry his personal fiefdom. Sarney was reportedly instrumental in Alcoa and Billiton's decision to base their aluminum plant in São Luís, capital of Maranhão. And, Sarney helped the companies arrange publicly subsidized energy from Tucuruí Dam.

Sarney's dreams of installing his daughter Roseana, then-governor of Maranhão as Brazilian president were scuttled during the 2002 presidential election when the Federal Police, supposedly acting on a tip from Sarney's political rivals, were tipped off that they could find more than $500,000 in illegal cash campaign donations in her private office. When Lula took office, he found Sarney a serviceable political ally, capable of mustering key votes to support measures that effected a rapid evolution from the Workers Party (PT)'s socialist idealism into an opportunistic and often orgiastic political banquet hosted by the PT and shared with Sarney's centrist PMDB party.

The PT entered office considering the energy sector to be "strategic" in its plans for fighting social and economic inequality in Brazil, and Lula appointed physicist Luis Pinguelli Rosa as president of state company Eletrobrás, and ex-guerrilha fighter Dilma Roussef as energy minister.

But, before long, the Sarney organization claimed the Brazilian energy sector as its own, installing Silas Rondeau, ex-president of Amazon state company Eletronorte as Eletrobrás' president in 2004 and later as Roussef's successor as energy minister. Roussef became Lula's chief-of-staff and the "mother" of Lula's Growth Acceleration Program, promoting dams in the Amazon at any cost. Rondeau was forced out of office in 2007 after security cameras filmed him receiving a paper bag reportedly containing a $50,000 monthly payoff from a construction company.

Next came Edison Lobão, another of Sarney's political "godsons" from Maranhão who despite his electric name, admitted on becoming energy minister that he didn't know anything more about the subject than how to flick a wall switch.

Then, Sarney succeeded in placing another of his Maranhão boys as president of Eletrobrás. According to journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto, "The nomination of José Antônio Muniz as president of Eletrobrás gave Sarney total power over the electric sector, from top to bottom. It should be remembered that Muniz was the director of Eletrobrás over whose cheek the Indian Tuíra passed her machete in 1989 in the First Encounter of Indigenous Peoples in Altamira, which had been organized to discuss the environmental damages that would have been caused by the Cararaô Dam, which today is called Belo Monte".

The Brazilian press has reported that Sarney's son Fernando is reportedly the "business manager" of the Sarney clan in their dealings with construction companies and dam builders. But, in fairness to the Sarney name, it should be mentioned that his other son, José Sarney Jr. is a long-time member of the Green Party who environmentalists came to respect when he served as Brazil's Environment Minister.

They say you are judged by the company you keep, and if that's true, than Lula's dogged support for Sarney bonds Brazil's current government to the political culture of the military dictatorship. And, as for Lula's commitment when he became president, "Our government will be a guardian of the Amazon and of its biodiversity. Our development program, especially in this region, will be marked by environmental responsibility" - it's just a distant memory.