Brazil

Creeping coup

Print edition : April 15, 2016

Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with President Dilma Rousseff as he is sworn in as the new Chief of Staff at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on March 17. Photo: Igo Estrela/Getty Images

A rally in support of Dilma Rousseff and Lula in Sao Paulo on March 18. Photo: Andre Penner/AP

Brazilian politics enters uncharted territory as a congressional committee is expected to decide whether to impeach the President or not for misappropriation of funds from the public sector oil company Petrobras. Those constitutionally positioned to succeed Dilma Rousseff are also under investigation.

SINCE the beginning of the year, Brazil has been lurching from crisis to crisis with the elected government now under the threat of being overthrown by a cabal of right-wing politicians, businessmen and judges acting in an extra-constitutional way. The current political crisis has its roots in the economic downturn the country has been facing since the re-election of President Dilma Rousseff for a second five-year term in office. Her victory coincided with the collapse of the commodity boom. Brazil, ruled for more than a decade and a half by the left-wing Workers Party (P.T.), first under Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva and then under Dilma Rousseff, was deemed an economic success story. But after Dilma Rousseff took charge for a second time, things started going awry. There were allegations that the President had not come clean about the dismal state of the economy when she ran for re-election. Her opponents claim that she deliberately fudged the figures to give the electorate a rosy picture of the economy. But so far there has not been any formal complaint of corruption against the President. Yet, the Brazilian right-wing is baying for her impeachment.

The present economic crisis is one of the worst Brazil has faced since “the great depression” of the 1930s. Over one million jobs were lost in 2015. A high inflation rate has adversely impacted the living wages of the working class. To further queer the pitch for the beleaguered President and the P.T., the scandal surrounding the misappropriation of funds from the giant public sector oil company, Petrobras, is threatening to enmesh key ruling party figures along with those belonging to the opposition. Big oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron were unhappy with Lula for making Petrobras the chief operating company for Brazil’s offshore oilfields, among the biggest in the world. He also opened up Brazil’s oil operations to the Chinese oil company Sinopec. WikiLeaks documents have revealed that the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) was regularly snooping on Dilma Rousseff and top Petrobras officials.

An investigation into the Petrobras scandal, code-named Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), started in March 2014. It is alleged that more than $2.7 billion was siphoned off from the company by corrupt officials, middlemen and politicians. It is also being alleged that some of the money was used to finance the P.T.’s election campaign in 2014. It is not only the P.T. that has been accused of dipping into Petrobras funds, leaders from across the political spectrum have been named in the corruption scandal. The charges against Lula and Dilma Rousseff are mainly based on a “plea bargain” made by Delcidio do Amaral, a former P.T. leader, in the Senate. He was arrested and sent to prison on charges of attempting a cover-up in the Petrobras investigations.

In a bid to get his prison term reduced, he entered into a plea bargain and named Lula and Dilma Rousseff as being among the beneficiaries of illegal funding. “I am a prophet of chaos,” do Amaral told the media after the high court accepted his plea bargain. He alleged that Lula received two properties from companies involved in the Petrobras scandal. Dilma Rousseff was accused of resorting to illegal funding of her election campaign. Do Amaral also accused Vice-President Michel Temer, who belongs to the Brazilian Democratic Party, and Eduardo da Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies, of receiving illegal funds from Petrobras. The other accused are Renan Calheiros, the current President of the Senate belonging to the Development Movement Party, and Aecio Neves, a Senator and the president of the opposition Brazil Social Democratic Party.

Although several conservative politicians have also been named in what is described as Brazil’s “worst corruption scandal”, the right-wing opposition is in a hurry to impeach the President and politically bury the charismatic Lula. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former President who belongs to the centre-right and who is a vocal critic of Lula, is also under investigation for corruption. But he is being treated with kid gloves by the oligarch-controlled Brazilian media, which have no love lost for the P.T. and Lula. The game plan obviously is to bring down Dilma Rousseff and ensure that Lula is not allowed to return to Brazilian politics. Lula has been readying to make a run for the presidency in 2018 after Dilma Rousseff’s term gets over.

In an unprecedented step, Sergio Moro, the magistrate who is investigating “Operation Car Wash”, issued a warrant of arrest against Lula. The police briefly arrested Lula, taking him away from his house to the police station in the early hours of the morning and interrogated him for around four hours. Moro has close connections with -the right-wing media conglomerate O Globo, which dominates the Brazilian media. Even conservative politicians were appalled by the early morning raid on a former President’s residence. In an article written in 2004, Moro had extolled the “authoritarian subversion of juridical order”. Lula, after all, was questioned about the allegations against him by investigators in his home on a previous occasion. One-third of the 539 members of the Brazilian Congress are under investigation for alleged acts of corruption. In its more than a decade and a half in power, the P.T. could never get an outright majority in the legislature. A lot of wheeling and dealing was needed to have important pieces of legislation passed and political deals made.

In recent months Brazil has been witnessing a wave of protests, most of them anti-government. In the third week of March, the P.T. cadre, seemingly galvanised by the arbitrary arrest and questioning of Lula, put up a defiant show in major cities. In Sao Paulo, the country’s largest city, more than a 100,000 people gathered to show their loyalty to P.T. and the beleaguered government. The P.T.’s popularity has definitely waned in the wake of the scandals and the economic downturn that has affected the poor. Recent opinion polls have shown that the majority of Brazilians want the “impeachment” of the President. The opposition has already started to lay the groundwork for an impeachment process. But many Brazilians are worried about such a prospect, however distant it may be. The last thing the people want is further political turmoil and economic uncertainties.

It will be difficult to find a replacement for Dilma Rousseff in the first place as most opposition leaders have been tarred by the corruption brush. The President has decided that she will not go down without a fight. Temer, who is constitutionally positioned to succeed her, also faces the charge of “illegal campaign financing”. The next in line, Eduardo da Cunha is also an accused in the ongoing Lava Jato investigations. The fourth in the line of succession is the President of the Senate; he is also under investigation. With the impeachment process having started in the Lower House, Brazilian politics will be entering uncharted territory. A newly formed Congressional Impeachment Committee is expected to decide within a month whether to impeach the President or not.

The latest round of street protests was triggered by the induction of Lula into Dilma Rousseff’s Cabinet as the chief of staff. Lula will be the de facto Prime Minister and will help Dilma Rousseff govern Latin America’s largest country. Dilma Rousseff said Lula’s entry would “strengthen” her government. Lula’s policies as President helped mitigate the sufferings of 30 million poor people. “I am going back to help President Dilma to do what must be done—re-establish peace and hope. There is no room for hate in this country,” Lula said after taking his oath of office.

Besides the economic and political crisis, Brazil is also facing a health crisis in the form of the “Zika epidemic”, which is causing panic in the north-eastern part of the country. The country will also be hosting the Summer Olympics in a few months. With Lula by her side, Dilma Rousseff will be more confident as she battles to overcome the challenges. As a Cabinet Minister, Lula will have immunity from prosecution. In Brazil, Ministers and other high officials can only be tried by the country’s highest court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal. A Supreme Court judge was quick to strike down Lula’s appointment despite the court being in recess. Lula’s lawyers have appealed to the head of the Supreme Court to overturn the order.

A judge investigating the case against Lula released a recording of a phone conversation between Dilma Rousseff and Lula. The two were heard vaguely talking about “appointment papers” being readied for Lula’s induction into the Cabinet. The very fact that the President’s phone is tapped is indicative of the deep machinations that are at play in Brazil today. Many of Brazil’s key institutions seem to have turned their back on the presidency. Some political groupings, marching under the anti-corruption banner, are openly calling for the restoration of military rule. As a young guerilla fighting for the overthrow of military rule, Dilma Rousseff was tortured after her arrest in the 1960s. She has warned that aggressive tactics were being used in the corruption investigations. “It is important that we don’t go back to history,” she said, alluding to the military dictatorship that ruled the country for two decades until the mid-1980s.

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