Congresswoman Tereza Cristina

Brazil’s next ag minister faces corruption charges

President-elect’s widely-praised would-be appointee faces corruption charges.

Is the party over? So soon?

Perhaps if Brazilian President-Elect Jair Bolsonaro’s transition team had done a better job vetting candidates for ministerial positions, the lovefest over his choice for ag minister would still be going on. Instead, just eleven days after Congresswoman Tereza Cristina was tapped to take up the ag ministry portfolio when the new administration takes over on Jan. 1, a cloud of scandal dropped in the form of a newspaper article alleging Cristina’s involvement in kickbacks and bribes that demonstrate the depth of corruption found in parts of Brazilian agribusiness.

Cristina is an aggressively pro-agribusiness congresswoman. The corruption case against her may reveal some of the things at least part of the country’s agribusiness sector has been doing under the table. Whether those efforts have helped the sector by cutting its costs of doing business, or hurt agribusiness by draining off huge sums of money to line the pockets of big players and government officials, is hard to say.

It started out so well

A lovefest started on Nov. 7, when Congresswoman Cristina was slated to become Brazil’s next agriculture minister upon the new administration taking over Jan. 1. With ag producers and business leaders urging her name on President-Elect Bolsonaro as the choice for Brazil’s next ag minister, the choice of the Brazilian congress’ Ag Caucus drew widespread praise.

After all, before becoming head of the Ag Caucus, Ms. Cristina, 64, had served as state ag secretary in Mato Grosso do Sul, where she had pushed to ease restrictions on pesticide application across the state and otherwise please many farmers and ranchers with her pro-ag positions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons a top official of JBS, the huge meat processor at the heart of the “Weak Flesh” scandal I wrote about last year donated thousands to her first campaign for Brazil’s congress.

Party interrupted

Or maybe JBS donated thousands of dollars to her congressional bid because the company had been renting a farm and cattle confinement operation from her while she was serving as ag secretary of the state where the operation was located. Or perhaps it was because, as a Brazilian papers alleged on Sunday, it was because JBS interests were finding it convenient to take advantage of the State of Goias’ perfectly legal programs to provide tax breaks and other goodies to companies to move to, or expanded their operations in, that state.

Yes, the state tax breaks are legal and common. States in the U.S. provide them all the time in order to lure businesses to relocate or expand. The not-so-legal part alleged in the press was the 20% to 30% kickbacks to Goias’ governor—Ms. Cristina’s boss—of the value of those state tax concessions run through Ms. Cristina’s secretariat. Goias’ former governor is now in jail awaiting trial on separate corruption charges.

Don’t jump to conclusions

As a result, Mr. Bolsonaro’s chance to bask in agriculture’s praise for his choice was threatened when the president-elect found himself defending her publicly. And he was aggressive about it. Pointing out that Ms. Cristina has not been convicted of anything, he asked rhetorically, “Has she already been judged (by a court)?”

Plenty of ag and government leaders are under investigation right now across Brazil. So many that it might be hard to find a good ministry candidate who hasn’t been under federal scrutiny.

“At the end of the day,” Bolsonaro said, “I’m a human being, and I can make mistakes. If any minister were to face a serious accusation, we would take action. At the moment, she has our complete confidence.”

Having to make such statements about one’s ministry appointee during what is supposed to be the festive time of a political transition cannot be fun. But given that Brazil’s newfound eagerness to root out corruption has put so many politicians either under investigation few politicians—and even some agribusiness leaders—are expecting the party to go on forever.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.

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