If it seems like Brazil’s presidential carousel is plagued annually by allegations of and convictions for participating in bribery, abuses of power, and general corruption, you’re not hallucinating.
It seems as if Brazil has finally gotten serious about exposing corruption amongst its political elite, extending but not limited to the office of the president. Former President Dilma Rousseff became the face of Brazil, as she presided over the country during most of its preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games. The attainment of the games was in and of itself a case of thinly veiled racketeering, but the corruption did not end with Rousseff’s impeachment in the waning days of August 2016.
The man left in charge of the nation was Michel Temer, Rousseff’s Vice President, who faced trial for soliciting illegal campaign contributions alongside Rousseff, but was not convicted. Now, Temer is facing corruption charges that may lead to his ouster.
But no corruption case involving high-level Brazilian politics has been pursued to the ends that the case against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has. The President from 2003 to 2011 was convicted on corruption and money laundering charges last week and was sentenced to 9 ½ years in prison, pending appeal.
The exposure of Lula’s systematic engagement in corruption and personal gain through the abuse of his power as president has continued. “Operation Carwash,” the name by which Lula’s primary money laundering scheme has been officially referred to, is just to the tip of the iceberg.
In a continent as chronically plagued with political corruption as South America, earnest, comprehensive investigations into and convictions surrounding corruption within political circles is a slippery slope. When it comes to a culture that has tolerated corruption for so long, the web which becomes part of the political racket is not merely limited to politics. Like a season of HBO’s The Wire, following the money when it comes to corruption often exposes uncomfortable realities.
One reality that few are prepared for is just how widespread the web of corruption in South America is, and how far it spreads. Local businesses, friends, and family are not immune to the lure that corruption provides. For Brazil, the attempt to purge political corruption will also expose skeletons in closets that few suspected existed.
Operation Car Wash serves as a microcosm for the insidious nature of corruption, and the expanding nature that anti-corruption investigations inevitably take on. Initially, the corruption was thought to be limited to money laundering schemes involving gas stations. As the investigation progressed, it became clear that the racket was far more vast, involving directly the state-owned oil company, the nation’s largest engineering and construction businesses, and elected officials across party lines.
Almost 100 people have been convicted thus far, with investigations still being carried out, making Operation Car Wash the largest corruption scandal in South American history.
The immensity of the network involved in Operation Car Wash is a testament to Brazil’s culture of corruption. One Brazilian presidential hopeful accuses the current leader of corruption and robbing the people of the nation’s wealth, only to do the same upon their election. With each new leader espousing integrity while embracing the state’s wealth through illegal means, the web of corruption extends further.
As it became clearer that corruption investigations could endanger the nation’s economic and political system- potentially even more than corruption itself- the court took on an ease of pace, allowing the now-convicted Lula to remain free while his appeal proceeded. Part of this rationale, according to the court, was to abate the shock that would result nationwide from a former president, at one time beloved by the Brazilian people, being thrown immediately in prison.
This cautious approach to alleging and pursuing charges of corruption in South America is wise. In a continent plagued for centuries by a me-first approach to public service, the saying “don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house” should be heeded. Former President Lula is the first prominent chip to fall in terms of a criminal conviction, but who will be next?
His successor, Rousseff, has faced political consequences for her engagement in corruption, but will she face criminal charges as well? And her successor, Michel Temer?
As the corruption cases proceed, the courts in Brazil have used certain tactics to limit the damage to the economy, as well as Brazilians’ and the world’s view of the resource-rich yet socially broken nation.
One tactic has been the increased use of plea bargains. This incentivizes implicated parties to expose those higher on the food chain. It also allows for shows of leniency, keeping parties out of jail by making deals before a case goes to trial.
Another tactic is charging individuals instead of the business they serve or represent. For obvious reasons, indicting individual scapegoats instead of challenging an entire business’ legitimacy serves to lessen the imbalance imposed upon the economy.
Lastly, the courts simply pursue some cases, but not all. One example of this is the case of BNDES, the nation’s state-owned and run development bank. It is widely known in Brazil that this bank is a bastion of corrupt practices- it is a South American, state-run bank after all- yet it appears unlikely that charges will be pursued against this entity. Should they be, experts note, the implications of just how deep the roots of corruption run in Brazil may be irreparable.
News of former President Lula’s conviction is a mixed bag. While it shows unprecedented resolve to rid the highest political ranks of corruption, it has also exposed the widespread culture that allowed for such corruption to breed.
Just how hard Brazilian courts are willing to look their nation in the mirror, including its underbelly of corruption that extends to banks, businesses, and entire state-run industries, will determine the short and long term outlook for the nation’s economic and social climate.