OPINION

Opinion: Corruption investigation or political witch-hunt in Brazil?

Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on March 4, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on March 4, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (ap)

On Friday, March 4th, the ever-widening investigation into corruption at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company in Brazil, ensnared former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Federal police raided his residence outside Sao Paulo and brought him in for three hours of questioning. Then, just yesterday, state prosecutors filed charges against Lula for money laundering, with regards to a beachfront villa they claim he owns and has kept hidden.

 It’s all part of an investigation called “Operation Carwash,” or Lava Jato in Portuguese, over a vast network of kickbacks that Petrobras allegedly gave to a consortium of infrastructure companies and network of politicians across the party spectrum, but mostly to the governing Worker’s Party (PT).

The best for Brazil’s democracy and efforts to ensure integrity in both the public and private sphere is that both sides maintain restraint in converting this into a political, partisan showdown on the street.

- Amy Williams

When news of the Friday’s dawn raid broke, protests—some violent—erupted on the streets of Sao Paulo. Just a week before, Lula had declared that he might run for president in the next election and that he was the most honest man in the country. 

Following his detainment Friday, Lula quickly denounced his “arrest” as political scaremongering — an attempt by the elite to discredit him and recover the government from his PT.

Beginning with his own party’s Twitter announcement of him being a “political prisoner,” both sides moved quickly to rally supporters and win public support. President Dilma Rousseff, herself not under investigation but with allegations swirling ever closer, went to visit Lula, her predecessor and mentor, at his home on Saturday, along with hundreds of supporters.

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President Rousseff has claimed that the ongoing political crisis is not the result of mismanagement on her part, despite dismal approval ratings and a cratering economy, but the result of sore losers from the 2014 election not content to wait until 2018 for a new government. One can’t help but note that she was Chair of Petrobras at the time when much of the corruption took place, and wonder, given her reputation has a micro-manager, how much she actually knew or is implicated in the scandal.

The important question is what this will mean for Brazil’s democracy, especially in the next few weeks. Is this just the latest stage of a much-needed cleansing of corruption and rot of Brazil’s political and business class?   

The case has brought to light the billions of dollars that have lined the pockets of politicians and business leaders from across the ideological spectrum, possibly even touching the beloved international icon, Lula. Or is this a political witch-hunt, a new type of “coup,” brought on by the elites trying to bring down the symbol of social mobility for the masses, as has been claimed by Lula and the PT? 

The risk is that, with Lula and the PT rallying their supporters and opposition groups staging their own protests over corruption and demanding that Rousseff resign, chaos and even potential conflict will come to Brazil’s streets. Ultimately, it will come down to the trust Brazilians have in their institutions to objectively resolve this issue. 

While Brazilians have long considered their government inept or partisan, the past two decades of democracy have brought a series of reforms—including by the PT—that have helped to strengthen and ensure the independence of the Brazilian state. 

Ironically, as Lula and other members of the PT denounce the current investigation as a political witch-hunt, they undercut the very institutions they had helped to build. The mere act of calling the popular, iconic former president in for questioning does not prove political motive. But it does require the state prosecutors avoiding even a whiff of partisanship. 

So far the prosecutors investigating Lula appear to be trying. Their statement following Lula’s questioning made it clear that “questioning” based on evidence and suspicions does not equal final judgment, though at least one, Carlos Fernando Lima, also made it clear that being a former president did not make one exempt from investigation. 

Unfortunately, it looks nearly impossible to keep politics out. While it is clear that there did exist a vast network of kickbacks among private construction companies and Petrobras (see the 19-year sentence issued to the former CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, of one of the major construction firms involved), rather than allow the investigation to proceed unimpeded, both the PT and the opposition are jumping on every step as an excuse to wage hold political rallies. 

The opposition is planning nationwide protests this upcoming Sunday, with the PT planning to hold its own the following week (March 19th). 

The best for Brazil’s democracy and efforts to ensure integrity in both the public and private sphere is that both sides maintain restraint in converting this into a political, partisan showdown on the street. As one commentator put it, Brazil isn’t Venezuela, but then again, not so long ago, Venezuela wasn’t Venezuela either.

Amy Williams is co-founder and managing director of Global Americans, a Brooklyn based think-tank focusing on foreign policy, human rights and social inclusion in Latin America.

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