Why Brazil’s Corruption Scandal Is a Sign of Progress

Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets over the weekend to protest their government and to send a message to the country’s political class: No one is untouchable.

Brazil’s politicians should take that to heart. The Federal Police temporarily detained Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president, for questioning earlier this month in connection with a huge — and expanding — graft investigation. President Dilma Rousseff, Mr. da Silva’s handpicked successor, could be next.

The corruption scheme under investigation unfurled from 2003 to 2010, during Mr. da Silva’s two terms in office. Prosecutors allege that during that time Brazil’s biggest construction firms; the state-controlled oil giant, Petrobras; and the country’s political leaders traded bribes, padded contracts and political support in a vast, mutually beneficial scheme.

It was a shock to see Mr. da Silva brought in for questioning. He remains a towering, nearly mythic political figure. The furor that followed reflects his position: The leader of Mr. da Silva’s party, the Workers Party, in Congress called for “war.” Another legislator denounced the detention as the start of a state coup, conflating the suspicion falling on Mr. da Silva with an attack on his party and its political project.

So far, Ms. Rousseff has remained on the sidelines, but she is the one to watch. Over the past several weeks, the inquiry has gotten dangerously close to the president. She has let it run without interference. The danger is that now, with the investigation tugging at the bases of Brazil’s power structures, she will be tempted to step in.

Ms. Rousseff has reasons to worry. As Mr. da Silva’s appointee, she was chairwoman of the board of directors at Petrobras, the center of this web of corruption. Key figures in her inner circle are toppling and could take her down with them.

The strategist behind her two successful presidential campaigns was taken into custody last month on suspicion of having received funds siphoned from the oil company into an offshore account. The Brazilian media reported recently that the former Workers Party Senate leader, who was arrested in November and charged with trying to obstruct the investigation, will denounce Mr. da Silva and Ms. Rousseff as part of a plea deal. While the effort to impeach the president on separate charges of using accounting shenanigans to cover up government overspending might be losing steam in Congress, a separate inquiry into her campaign financing could lead the judiciary to remove her from office.

As the investigators close in, some observers believe she may finally be tempted to try to impede their efforts. The recent resignation of the minister of justice, José Eduardo Cardozo, is one reason to worry. The Federal Police are autonomous, but under the purview of the Justice Ministry. Mr. Cardozo said that as investigators cornered political allies, he came under pressure for “not controlling the police like he should.” His departure raised concerns about the Federal Police’s integrity and fears that the force’s chief could be replaced with someone more pliant.

This is not the moment for Ms. Rousseff to falter. Her government’s credibility, among Brazilians and abroad, has been severely damaged. The president has a 35 percent chance of remaining in power until the end of her term in 2018, according to Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

The crisis has restricted her ability to fix Brazil’s troubled economy: Increasingly isolated within her own party, she lacks the support to push through tough austerity measures. Joaquim Levy, the hawkish finance minister she appointed, found his efforts to cut spending and raise taxes opposed by Ms. Rousseff’s own party and a rebellious Congress. He resigned last December, prompting a plunge of Brazil’s currency and stock exchange.

All three ratings agencies have downgraded Brazil’s credit rating in recent months, citing mounting debt and political instability. Headlines rotate daily charges of graft, nepotism and influence peddling. The economy shrank by nearly 4 percent in 2015, and is not expected to revive substantially this year.

Corruption has been endemic in Brazilian politics for decades. An investigation as serious and far-reaching as this one is new for the country. For that reason, it is also inspiring.

This investigation was born of the painstaking, steady construction over years of anti-corruption legislation and of the institutions that put these laws into practice. Mr. da Silva played an important role in laying the groundwork for this, building up civil society and improving the judiciary. Ms. Rousseff herself signed the laws that allow suspects and companies in corruption cases to become informants in exchange for lighter sentences — one of the legal tools helping move the investigation forward.

Because this investigation has remained independent and unafraid to go after the country’s most powerful politicians, it has emerged not as a tool for coup-mongers, as some have charged, but as evidence of the country’s maturing democracy. Despite the headlines and the scandals, Brazil is now a place where the law applies to all, equally. Ms. Rousseff should recognize that this is worth preserving — even if it costs her the presidency.

Juliana Barbassa is the author of Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.

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