The 2016 Brazil Corruption Games: A Snapshot of the Tense Brazilian Political Climate

Alex Sadler, JHU:

A former president investigated. Another former president charged. The biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. Implicating wire-taps. Protests gathering more than a million people. To call the last few weeks contemptuous would be an understatement. While it’s near impossible to cover everything that’s happened in Brazil this month, a good place to start is two years ago with the beginning of Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash).

Operation Car Wash

Operation Car Wash began in March of 2014 under the leadership of Federal Judge Sérgio Moro. With the amount of bribes totaling more than $5 billion USD, Operation Car Wash has been far and away the largest corruption scandal in Brazilian history. Starting in 2004, the scandal involved the systematic overcharging of the largest company in Brazil, Petrobras, an energy company that is mostly owned by the Brazilian government. What Car Wash consisted of was a small group of construction executives winning bids on Petrobras contracts and blatantly overcharging the company for their services. While this was happening, a group of Petrobras executives knew this overcharging was happening and did nothing to stop it. Instead, they took bribes from the extra money the construction heads made from overcharging the company in the first place. So how does this connect to Brazil’s politicians? As a summary by Vox explains, “some of the proceeds also got sent to friendly politicians, as either personal gifts or donations to their campaigns. Because Petrobras is partially owned by the state, politicians can install people as executives – who then turn around and reward that politician with a bribe.” Some of the bribes consisted of “Rolex watches, $3,000 bottles of wine, yachts, helicopters, and prostitutes.” The kicker? While all of this was happening, Dilma Rousseff, current President of Brazil, held a seat on the board of directors of Petrobras from 2003-2010. Although Rousseff has consistently denied any prior knowledge to the scandal and no evidence connecting her to the scandal itself has been found, it has been a common source of Brazilian anger towards their current president as they question how her incompetence could have let such a massive scandal like this occur.

Operation Car Wash doesn’t end there. Up to today (March 20, 2016), 133 have been arrested, 179 have been indicted, 84 have been convicted, and 232 have been investigated with 16 companies involved. Those involved transcend political leaning: former right-wing president and current senator Fernando Collor de Mello has been charged, the treasurer of the left wing Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, party of President Dilma Rousseff) João Vaccari Neto has been arrested, current President of the Senate Renan Calheiros has been charged with involvement, as has current Speaker of the House and the man calling for Dilma’s impeachment, Eduardo Cunha. That’s right. The man calling for the impeachment of President Rousseff has himself been charged with taking at least $5 million USD in bribes.

What about Lula?

So how does former President Lula figure into this? President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula) made headlines earlier this month when he was detained in his home in São Paulo and picked up for 3 hours of questioning about his connection to Operation Car Wash. Lula was quick to express his discontent at his treatment by Judge Moro saying that it was completely unnecessary to detain him in such a manor after he had repeatedly offered to testify. Moro claims to have evidence connection Lula to receiving bribes in the form of luxury homes. With no formal accusations made against the former president, he returned back to his home. The situation with Lula picked back up in the beginning of this week as he was appointed chief of staff to Dilma’s cabinet. Dilma’s appointment brought anger to many as they claim that Lula’s cabinet appointment now makes him immune to the ongoing Operation Car Wash investigations lodged towards him. Defenders of Dilma and Lula are quick to point out that this does not make Lula immune to the charges, it merely changes the ruling court in Lula’s case. Executive, cabinet, and legislative members are placed under different jurisdiction than average Brazilians, they can only be tried by the Supreme Court. The next day after Lula’s appointment, Judge Moro released tapped phone calls between Lula and President Dilma. In the conversation Dilma tells Lula that she has the papers ready for Lula’s appointment “so that we have them, just in case of necessity.” The release of this, along with several other recorded Lula conversations, sparked anger from both sides. The pro impeachment side has been quick to call this a clear sign that Dilma only appointed Lula to help him evade prosecution while the Lula defenders (and Dilma and Lula themselves) say that they were merely discussing availability of documents for Lula in the case he wouldn’t make it to Brasilia for the official swearing in. The release of these phone calls brought in another question of surveillance in general. Many expressed outrage at Moro for tapping the phones of a former and current president. Moro justified his actions by citing the U.S. Watergate investigations of 1970 and stating, “Democracy in a free society requires that the governed know what their governors are doing, even when they try to act in the dark.”

The Pro-Impeachment Protests

Last Sunday (March 13) saw mass mobilization of anti-Dilma, pro-impeachment masses calling for the immediate impeachment of Dilma. Spurred on by the criminal accusations launched against former president Lula, the over 2 million protesters in São Paulo and over 1 million in Rio took to streets to show their anger and discontent with the federal government. After speaking with several protest goers, the general consensus was that people were fed up with the rampant corruption and – coupled with one of the worst recessions Brazil has seen – general dysfunction of government. And while protests against the Dilma government are strong and have continued into the week, critics say this is a continuation of class struggles as most of the protestors could be characterized as members of the Brazilian upper class. Many characterized the divide with this viral picture of a white Brazilian couple walking their dog to the protests while a black, uniformed nanny followed behind with their two children. While roughly 2/3’s of the Brazilian population want Dilma impeached, it seems that much of that number is comprised of rich, white Brazilians. As a BBC report noted, “polls suggest the demonstrations are dominated by white and upper-middle-class people.” Though many do support a Dilma impeachment, some of the reasons as to why continue to be muddled.

The Anti-Impeachment Protests

Chanting “não vai ter golpe!” (you won’t have a coup!), anti-impeachment calls echoed through the historic Plaza XV in Rio de Janeiro on Friday (March 18), a day for pro-government, anti-impeachment protesters to come together and defend their government. Dressed in red (the color of the Partido dos Trabalhadores party), many protesters were there not to defend Dilma but to defend a democratically elected leader. There were many that didn’t like Dilma or her politics, but were more concerned with the state of the Brazilian democracy. One protester explained, “I didn’t vote for Dilma in the first or the second election, but I’m here today to remind my country of what happened the last time we tried to forcefully remove someone from the presidency.” She was referencing the 1964 Brazilian military coup that installed a twenty-year military dictatorship. The dictatorship was a dark time for many Brazilians as many civil rights were oppressed and dissenters were often tortured. There was a fear expressed by the crowd that forcibly removing Dilma from power could bring Brazil down a similar road. Said one protester, “I don’t feel comfortable being shirtless on Ipanema Beach anymore because of my Che Guevara tattoo. It seems as if Brazilians aren’t even open to civil discussion anymore. Any ideas a little left of center are immediately shouted down.” Additionally, there was fear expressed that a Dilma impeachment would not be a justified one, as she hasn’t technically been caught of breaking any laws. Protesters worried that an unjust Dilma impeachment would bring chaos to the streets. Finally, many anti-impeachment supporters expressed their discontent for the country’s largest media provider, Rede Globo, for its biased coverage of the Dilma administration, painting the president in an unnecessary light. Many were quick to point out that this was the same media organization that apologized for its help in propping the military government of 1964 and for showing disproportionate coverage of the 1989 presidential debate between Lula and Fernando Collor de Mello (both, funnily enough, charged with corruption scandals in Operation Car Wash). In the defense of its own party, the Workers Party published a document criticizing Globo for its unfair coverage of portraying the Workers Party as the only party involved in Operation Car Wash.

What’s Next?

No one knows. The creativity of the actors in the entire Car Wash scandal could give the House of Cards writers a serious run for their money. As for what’s next, impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have been filed for a second time in the last two years (last year impeachment proceedings were filed against her but did not receive enough support). Only time will tell how Congress will vote on the impeachment issue. In the meantime, Brazilians wait with baited breath, some hopeful for a new direction for the country after more than a decade of Workers Party rule, and others, fearing the outcomes that a formal impeachment may bring to the nation. Only time will tell as the saga continues. My best guess? An adapted TV Netflix Original coming to a college dorm room near you.


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