When the illiterate entertainer Tiririca decided to run for a seat as a federal deputy of Sao Paulo Congress, many laughed. But as his 1,300 million votes have guaranteed him at least four years of living comfortably as a Brazilian politician, very few are still amused.
A recent increase of his wages as a public servant, along with all political rookies taking the oath of office this January, has exacerbated public frustration with the way Brazil rewards its political classes. And some are asking, “Who’s laughing now?” as if the phenomenon was a consequence of democracy, and not of the country’s particular brand of it.
Tiririca, loosely translated as Grumpy, stands to make R$ 12.800,000 (about $7.600,000) in monthly wages (*), plus R$ 3.000 for living expenses, a one-time stipend of about R$ 51.000 for staffing, R$ 15 thousand for state administrative costs, between R$ 4 and R$15 thousand for air travel, R$ 6.000 annually for print services, and about R$ 4.ooo for phonecalls and posting costs
Besides a 13th extra salary, a Brazilian tradition that usually extends even to private companies, federal deputies also earn two more extra months worth of salary as “cost stipend.” Their health insurance plan is unlimited and without borders, which means Tiririca will be able to choose the hospitals and doctors of his preference. In comparison, only an estimate 20% of the Brazilian population has some form of health coverage.
Though with the election, Tiririca’s jumped from a working class clown of Brazil’s impoverish Northeast to a member of a privileged segment of its population, his salary compensation is not unlike that of an average third-world politician. It’s also a fraction of a U.S. politician’s on an equivalent echelon, of course, although American elected officials rarely lack a degree or an upper class upbringing.
Faced with outrage mainly from those he defeated, the Sao Paulo Electoral Court did try to save face, demanding a constitutional proof of literacy from Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, his birth name. But he beat the examiners’ test and is moving to Brasilia this month.
Tiririca’s campaign videos drew millions of viewers on the Internet, with slogans such as “It can’t get any worse” and “What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don’t know. But vote for me and you’ll find out.”
Brazil’s relatively young democracy may have other Tiriricas ahead, but it’s a fact of the political process that the majority rule takes precedence, whether it makes sense or not. Perhaps this episode may hold a few lessons of its own to teach vexed Brazilians, 10% of which are themselves illiterate.
Tiririca’s ascension is a tough break for this proud nation and its aspirations to become a world power. But rather than shame or shock, more balanced minds hope the example jump-starts a long-dormant push toward education, far beyond simply raising literacy levels.
(*) All currency exchanges from Brazilian reais to U.S. dollars are approximate.