Corruption scandals continue to plague Brazilian presidents, past and present. Former two-term president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, was found guilty of taking bribes involving a luxury beachfront apartment, in connection with assisting Brazilian Petroleum giant, Petrobras, in securing government contracts. He was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison. President Lula denies all charges against him and appealed the decision.
Lula’s successor to the presidency and close political ally, Dilma Rouseff, was impeached on charges that she moved funds from different government accounts, which is illegal in Brazil, for the alleged purpose of strategically filling deficit holes. Rouseff has argued she was the victim of a political coup, and that her actions were entirely in line with what a president can do.
Current president and former Vice President, Michel Temer, who assumed power when Dilma was impeached, has also been investigated for corruption. The Brazilian attorney general has formally charged Temer with accepting cash bribes from massive Brazilian meat-packing corporation JBS, which itself has been the target of corruption allegations.
Fabio De Sa e Silva, International relations and Wick Cary professor of Brazilian studies at the University of Oklahoma, and a native Brazilian, recently spoke to KGOU’s World Views regarding the current political climate in Brazil.
He said Brazil has more than 30 relevant political parties, so it is difficult for any party to establish stability and political longevity. This leads to many politicians who try to gain future political favors through unethical methods.
“They want to come stronger in the next elections, they are looking for ways to accumulate more political power but also more economic resources,” De Sa e Silva said.
“If you put those pieces together ... a country that grew economically and that began to make more investments in terms of industrial development and infrastructure, and a political system that was growing fragile in that respect, then you have ... more clues to understand what's going on,” De Sa e Silva said.
On systemic political weakness
In the case of Brazil we now have over almost 30 parties represented in Congress. So it's very hard for a president to build a coalition in support of his agenda or her agenda. One of the ways that politicians found to you know take that step, was to give positions to representatives of these parties within the government structure.
On Brazil’s “superstar” judiciary
We had a movie that was released and that's a movie about the Lava Jato, or "Carwash Operation" and all these judges and prosecutors were there at the premier. They were being photographed just as the actors and the actresses that perform in the movies. So yes, they have become superstars in that sense too. So there's a lot to talk about them and the role that come into play in Brazil’s politics these days.
On the winners of the corruption scandal
One of the effects that this corruption scandal had was it discredited the entire political system, and that can be bad or good. Right now, what you see is the only people who are taking benefit from this situation is the extreme right wing, especially one of the candidates or would-be candidate named Jair Bolsonaro. He is one who is growing in the polls, and who's now, you know, being talked about in a very serious way in terms of his intentions of becoming the next president.
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Suzette Grillot: Fabio De Sa E Silva, welcome to World Views.
Fabio De Sa E Silva: Thank you very much.
Grillot: It's good to have you here to talk about Brazil, of course one of my favorite countries, and one of the reasons why it's my favorite is because it's kind of complicated and interesting, in some of the things that challenges that they're facing today politically, economically, and otherwise. We've got these ongoing corruption scandals among the highest levels of Brazilian politicians. Former President Lula has been convicted of corruption charges and is now appealing that. Former President Rousseff also facing charges. And the current president, Temer, is also accused of corruption but has so far remained in office. We're talking big time corruption here. Hundreds of millions, if not maybe billions of dollars, that that we're talking about being diverted here for individual purpose and use. So Fabio, kind of set this up for us. What's going on in Brazil? How do we understand these presidential scandals as they're ongoing?
De Sa E Silva: Well corruption in Brazil is not a new phenomenon. What I think was new in this particular case was the fact that it came onto the surface, and people got to discuss it, like you know moments in the past where when whether because of the military dictatorship or because institutions were not so strong, the media didn't have the same degree of freedom it has today. These issues couldn't be properly addressed by the public opinion. There are some other aspects of more contemporary Brazil, that make this a slightly different issue than that was in the past. One of them is the fact that Brazil actually had a very good moment in terms of its economic development during the past few years, and then the government got to spend more money and make more investments and of course that amplifies the opportunities for some of the corrupt conduct by both public officials, and people in the business sector. But also the fact that the political system in Brazil, Technically, it's not a bipartisan democracy. You can have independents or you can have people come in from other parties to run for office but in practice it gets pretty bipartisan. Then you have Democrats and you have the Republicans and the role of the president, because Brazil is also a presidential system, is to search for common ground around the issues that he wants or she wants to advance in his or her agenda.
De Sa E Silva: In the case of Brazil we now have over almost 30 parties represented in Congress. So it's very hard for a president to build a coalition in support of his agenda or her agenda. One of the ways that politicians found to you know take that step, was to give positions to representatives of these parties within the government structure. And of course when they are there, because they want to come stronger in the next elections, they are looking for ways to accumulate more political power but also more economic resources. Or they search for opportunities to get you know kickbacks, and to ask for bribes in all the contracts that the handle. So if you put those pieces together, you know a country that grew economically and that begin to make more investments in terms of industrial development and infrastructure, and a political system that was growing fragile in that respect, then you have you know more clues to understand what's going on.
I think what I'm hearing is that this country grew so quickly economically, that it's democratic institutions, like the rule of law, hadn't really kind of solidified enough to perhaps prevent some of these corrupt activities from happening. So on the one hand the institutions are strong enough to actually work in that way and it's a good sign. On the other hand there was too much economic growth and too much opportunity as you said, too much you know financial opportunity, that the democratic institutions weren't strong enough to prevent the corruption to begin with. Is this is this something what you're saying that we perhaps if the political institutions had had grown, if they had been a stronger democracy, if there had been more of a kind of a norm of you know behavior or some sort of constraint on this kind of corruption before massive economic growth in Brazil, that we might not have seen this sort of thing?
De Sa E Silva: Yes and perhaps things were coming together. You know part of the sources that are being used in these investigations actually come from some of the transparency laws that President Rousseff for example advocated for, and that translated into a bill that was passed in Congress. All the legislation that's been used to accuse all these politicians actually passed during the PT governments. So I think that both processes, both the country becoming more economical developed, and politically developed, were taking place more or less at the same time. But at the core of it was this issue with campaign contributions and the fragmentation of political parties, and all those parties looking for means to get stronger to the next election. And so there was a structural failure that was exposed through these scandals.
Grillot: Well so let's talk a little bit about your main area of expertise and that's on the issue of kind of policy and law, and particularly the role of the judiciary, and public prosecutors and prosecution in kind of managing corruption here. Can you tell us a little bit about how the judiciary or the judicial branch, is kind of managing this and I guess, how we envision the judicial role in fighting corruption.
De Sa E Silva: So you mentioned rule of law and whether what's going on is an indicator of a stronger rule of law in Brazil. And in fact, most of what we are discussing now stems from this corruption investigation that started in 2014. It originally started as an investigation on money laundering. The connection between that and the political system was not clear in the beginning, until they arrested some of Petrobras officials who were getting kickbacks for contracts, and these people were then, in one of those numerous plea deals that that took place within the investigation, then reveal that part of the money was actually being channeled to political parties and to politicians. And then now there is a there's a big political role that's being played by the judiciary, and public prosecutors in that sense, that they're coming out before the public opinion. And I think even in terms of how they understand their role in democracy, they are coming out as these you know moral entrepreneurs that are cleaning their country in some way.
Grillot: They're judicial entrepreneurs you're basically saying?
De Sa E Silva: Yes.
De Sa E Silva: Some entrepreneurship act from the bench.
De Sa E Silva: Yeah. So which has its complications as well.
De Sa E Silva: We had a movie that was released and that's a movie about the Lava Jato, or "Carwash Operation" and all these judges and prosecutors were there in the premiere. They were being photographed just as the actors and actresses that perform in the movies. So yes, they have become superstar in that sense too. So there's a lot to talk about them and the role that come into play in Brazil’s politics these days.
Grillot: How is that affecting the way in which they're actually engaged in the real work of fighting corruption? I mean you know, because at some point is it not so much about fighting corruption as it is about themselves and their own role, and kind of perhaps even solidifying a stronger judicial role in Brazilian politics?
De Sa E Silva: Yes that's exactly what I argue in my studies. I think that this is a result of a longer process of the legal profession coming back to play a lead role in government. And this is also something that started with the 1988 constitution which was when actually all these legal careers were either created or recreated. So this is when judicial independence was guaranteed because during the military dictatorship, judges could be removed based on you know whether what they were doing were being liked or not by the government. And many of them were actually wiped out of their seats by the military. But then in 1988, the constitution ensures their role in him gives them all the protection that they need to rule, and also creates the public prosecutor's office in Brazil which is very unique. You don't find anything like that around the world in terms of the protection that they have, and the power that they get to file lawsuits, both criminal and civil, against anything that hurts the public interest. So that's like a public interest bar entrenched within the state with all the protections. They think it's important for public interest cases to be brought about but also public defenders and government lawyers, all those you know actors, were empowered by the Constitution. What happened is that it took a long time for them to actually translate that you know power and institutional condition into actual lawsuits or investigations, that would have a real impact in politics. Brazil was dealing with other issues during this time. Brazil was stabilizing the economy, bringing about social policies that would reduce inequality. But in the meantime you know the legal profession was being deeply transformed. And these judges were taking their seats, these prosecutors were taking their seats, and were developing their doctrinal concepts that they would then mobilizing in this particular context of this investigation.
Grillot: So Fabio I have to ask and it's kind of two questions put together. When you're telling us the story about particularly about the judicial role and the role the role of judges and prosecutors in fighting corruption here in Brazil, it reminds me of the days of fighting corruption and organized crime in Italy. And judges played a significant role in doing that. But they were also significantly targeted and there was a lot of violence that was focused on judges and prosecutors, for going after organized criminal groups. And that's then what catalyzed the public support to fight organized crime in Italy. Do you see that same type of thing happening in Brazil where there's any kind of, these judges are threatened in any way? or the prosecutors are threatened in any way if the work that they're doing? And secondly what is the public response to all of this and support?
De Sa E Silva: The first thing that's interesting to highlight is the fact that they themselves feel inspired by the Italian example. So there are now books being written and comparing the two, even this judge this particular judge named Sergio Moro who is the head of this case in the federal judiciary, tells this is where he get inspiration from as he proceeds with the case. They've put themselves at the center of a controversy, and that's going to create some sort of response. And one of the responses that they got was of course that they got support. So there's it's no wonder that movies are being made to portray them as these heroes or ruthless people who are you know going after these corrupts.
De Sa E Silva: But at the same time there are questions about their role and whether they're doing it consistently. So for example one of the things that Judge Moro himself did, that affected very directly the political crisis is he released conversations between President Dilma and former President Lula to the media. And that's really catalyzed the impeachment proceedings against President Rousseff. However the problem is that he didn't have the authority to tape her. And so he had to send that to the Supreme Court, if he came across a conversation where she wasn't involved. It was only the Supreme Court that had the authority to examine that, and determine whether there was anything criminal in that. So when he did that he put himself in a much larger political game, and of course he would be then you know hit as any other politician would have.
Grillot:What do you see as far as going for it kind of like the prospects, or the hope, and the sense that you know we will see a new growth in leadership of new leaders coming up that will not repeat these types of mistakes, won't have the same type of opportunity to do so. I mean do you see that that Brazil is moving in the right direction in that regard?
De Sa E Silva: One of the effects that this corruption scandal had was it discredited the entire political system and that can be bad or good. Right now what you see is the only people who are taking benefit from this situation is the extreme right wing, especially one of the candidates or would be candidate name named Jair Bolsonaro. He is one who is growing in the polls, and who's now, you know, being talked about in a very serious way in terms of his intentions of becoming the next president. I do hope that the other political parties will do their jobs and try to find new leadership. PT of course has Lula as his icon. And Lula wants to be candidate. We don't know if he'll be able to do to be. If not I really hope that you know PT, PSDB and all the other more more consolidated parties will be able to work out both candidacies and projects that will put the country back on track, because now the overall situation is very bad in terms of the direction that it's taken.
Grillot: All right Fabio thank you so much for being here today.
De Sa E Silva: Thank you.
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